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NIH Convenes Expert Panel to Address Biolab Concerns

Group will help shape goals and scope of additional testing

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NEIDL.jpg

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

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has established a Blue Ribbon Panel to help determine the environmental risk assessment that the agency will conduct regarding the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) currently being built on the BU Medical Campus. The panel, chaired by Adel Mahmoud, a senior molecular biologist at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, includes 16 experts in infectious diseases, public health and epidemiology, risk assessment, environmental justice, risk communications, biodefense, biosafety, and infectious disease modeling. The agency has also established an internal coordinating committee to help address safety concerns raised by community representatives and by a National Research Council report on the NIH draft supplementary risk assessments.

Because the NEIDL, which houses a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) lab for research on dangerous microorganisms, will be located in a densely populated urban neighborhood, it has been a source of controversy ever since September 2003, when the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) awarded Boston University Medical Center $128 million to build the facility.

In November, a committee of scientists convened by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that a study released last August by the NIH failed to employ sufficiently rigorous analysis in assessing the risks of locating the lab on the Boston University Medical Campus rather than in a suburban or a rural alternative. That report, conducted by the NAS’s National Research Council, 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 Blue Ribbon Panel, which will meet for the first time next week, will act as a working group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director, a standing high-level scientific advisory body providing advice directly to the NIH leadership. The panel will provide independent scientific advice regarding the oversight and conduct of the ensuing study and its conclusions.

Elias A. Zerhouni, the director of NIH, says the safety of people working in the lab and living in surrounding communities is the agency’s main concern. “All of the analyses conducted to date indicate that the risks posed by this lab are extremely low,” says Zerhouni. “We recognize that the community has remaining concerns, however, and we will address those concerns rigorously, objectively, and comprehensively.”

Ellen Berlin, the director of corporate relations for the BU Medical Center, says the University welcomes additional study and applauds the creation of the independent panel. “We are pleased they will consider all concerns, including the community’s and those expressed by the panel assembled by the National Research Council,” Berlin says. “We are confident that the lab will be safe, and this third-party examination is an important step in the public process.”

Anthony S. Fauci, the director of NIAID, says the agency will use a transparent process to thoroughly examine any potential risks to the community associated with the project.

“The biomedical research conducted in facilities such as the one under construction at Boston University Medical Center is essential for developing vaccines, therapies, and diagnostics to protect the American public against infectious diseases that may occur naturally or be deliberately introduced,” says Fauci.

In addition to Mahmoud, panel members are:

Donald Burke
Director, Center for Vaccine Research
Dean, Graduate School of Public Health
Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Health
UPMC-Jonas Salk Chair in Global Health
University of Pittsburgh

Stephen Eubank
Professor, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute
Deputy Director, Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory
Adjunct Professor, Department of Physics
Professor, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Vicki Freimuth
Professor of Speech Communication, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia

George Friedman-Jimenez
Director, Bellevue Occupational and Environmental Medicine Clinic
Assistant Professor of Environmental Medicine and Medicine
New York University Medical Center
New York University School of Medicine

Peggy Hamburg
Senior Scientist
Nuclear Threat Initiative

Karen Holbrook
Vice President for Research and Innovation
University of South Florida

Dennis Kasper
William Ellery Channing Professor of Medicine
Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics
Harvard Medical School
Director, Channing Laboratory
Department of Medicine
Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Johnnye Lewis
Director, Community Environmental Health Program
College of Pharmacy, Health Sciences Center
Co-Director, Environmental Health Signature Program
Health Sciences Center
University of New Mexico

Ian Lipkin
Professor
Neurology and Pathology
Mailman School of Public Health
Columbia University

Tom Murray
President
The Hastings Center

Mary Northridge
Professor, Clinical Sociomedical Sciences
Mailman School of Public Health
Columbia University

Jean Patterson
Scientist and Chair, Department of Virology and Immunology
Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research

Mark Robson
New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station
Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences

Samuel Stanley
Vice Chancellor for Research
Director, Midwest Regional Center of Excellence
Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases
Professor of Medicine and Molecular Microbiology
Washington University in St. Louis

Wayne Thomann
Assistant Professor
Director of Environmental Safety
Duke University Medical Center
Duke University

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