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NRC Finds Flaws in Draft of NEIDL Risks

Consultant urged to take new tack in safety study

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Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The National Research Council has raised concerns in a letter posted on its website yesterday about the methodology used in an ongoing study of the risks associated with the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) on the Boston University Medical Campus.

The NRC found that the risk assessment, which is being supervised by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by the consultancy Tetra Tech, had yet to respond to a recommendation for tiered quantitative and qualitative analyses and that its researchers erred when they used expert opinions as a substitute for absence of actual data on 13 pathogens in a modeling process. The NRC committee, whose concerns stem from a scheduled review of a preliminary draft of the risk assessment, urged Tetra Tech to make a “midcourse correction” and use actual data rather than the opinions of experts.

In response to the NRC letter, Boston University, which received $128 million from the NIH in 2003 to build the laboratories, issued a statement expressing disappointment that Tetra Tech’s preliminary report did not respond to the previous recommendations of the NRC. The University made it clear that the future of the project depended on the scientific soundness of the risk assessment. 

“Although we firmly believe that the high-containment laboratory can be operated safely, we are also convinced that the additional scientific analysis to test our belief is vital to the project’s credibility and is something to which the community is entitled,” the statement says. “Unless the final report is thorough, complete, and scientifically sound, the permitting of the laboratory cannot proceed.”


The current analysis is the second effort to assess the risks of the project to have been requested by the federal and state courts in response to community opposition to the project. A 2007 study conducted voluntarily by the NIH, which found that the current location is as safe as, or safer than, suburban or rural alternatives, was deemed by the courts to be inadequate.

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

3 Comments

3 Comments on NRC Finds Flaws in Draft of NEIDL Risks

  • Anonymous on 11.19.2010 at 10:49 am

    D minus on their mid-term

    Having read the NRC letter, I can summarize in non-scientific terms. “Tetra Tech almost completely ignored our recommendations to START by addressing 3 questions and then use the answers as a basis for applying scientific data. Instead Tetra Tech selected a handful of scientists and asked them to engage in non-transparent rounds of voting (similar to a criminal jury) to produce concensus opinions. Since we asked for SCIENCE not expert opinion, and there is no reason to believe the questions asked for expert opinion are even the right questions —- none of this report is useful —- and BTW, the data presented on urban vs suburban vs rural siting is pretty bad science – for mulltiple reasons, not the least of which is ignoring the difference in contagion vectors and vulnerabilty between poor, at-risk, dense urban populations and middle-class suburban populations. — no amount of additional clarifying information will help this report – bottom line: Tetra Tech needs to start over from the beginning, because right now they scored a D minus on their mid-term.”

  • Karen Silver on 11.19.2010 at 8:02 pm

    EID in Boston

    If you are working with the filoviridae and some of the arboviruses, there is no such thing as being TOO careful and I would hope that the review underway teaches something about vetting the methodology of consultants before going ahead and accepting their recommendations.

  • Anonymous on 11.21.2010 at 8:51 pm

    For those interested in the lab

    Wednesday, December 1 at 7pm there will be an informational teach-in on the NEIDL and its consequences. The event will be held in the BU Womens’ Resource Center (in the basement of the GSU).

    Come learn about the science, politics, and disputes behind the lab, and discuss BU community responses to this latest failure.

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