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Scientists Fault Report on NEIDL

National Academy scientists question NIH methodology and analysis


An artist rendering of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories in Boston's South End.

A committee of scientists convened by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has concluded that a study released last August by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) failed to employ sufficiently rigorous analysis in assessing the risks associated with locating the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) on the Boston University Medical Campus, rather than in a suburban or rural alternative. The report, conducted by the NAS’s National Research Council (NRC) and released yesterday, found that the earlier NIH study did not adequately identify worst-case scenarios and failed to provide sufficient information to compare the risks associated with the alternative locations.

The NAS study, conducted at the request of the state Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, concluded that the NIH study, which determined that the South End site was as safe as, or safer than, alternative locations in less populated areas, was “not sound and credible” because of “serious weaknesses” with its methodology and modeling. The NRC committee review did not address the issue of whether the South End is an appropriate site for the NEIDL.

In a statement issued yesterday, National Institutes of Health officials said the NIH “appreciates the thoughtful and rigorous review of its draft document by the NRC committee and will consider their comments along with all others received from the Boston community and elsewhere.” NIH officials emphasized the NRC’s warning that committee conclusions “are based solely on the committee’s technical review” and “should not be viewed as statements about the risks of proposed biocontainment facilities in Boston, or in cities generally.”

Ellen Berlin, director of corporate communications for the BU Medical Campus, said she is confident that the NIH will address all questions about its earlier study in a forthcoming report.

The challenged NIH study, conducted voluntarily in response to concerns raised in federal court proceedings, used computer models to simulate several scenarios in which an infectious disease was accidentally released from a Level 4 lab and introduced to the community in urban, suburban, and rural environments. Investigators found that under normal conditions and using realistic scientific assumptions, the likelihood of infection or death was negligible and approached zero. They also simulated unrealistic scenarios that far overstated the actual risks. Using even those exaggerated possibilities, NIH researchers determined that the lab’s Boston location was as safe as alternative locations in suburban Tyngsborough, Mass., and in rural Peterborough, N.H.

The NAS study is the latest development in an ongoing battle that pits proponents of the NEIDL against neighborhood activists and some environmental groups. The new biosafety lab is being built by Boston University Medical Center with a grant from the NIH. Researchers will study dangerous infectious diseases and develop diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines. Construction is slated for completion in 2008.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.