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Researchers Cite Experts’ Findings of NEIDL Safety

Arguments counter city councilman’s attempt to ban Biosafety Level 4 research


In a discussion whose outcome may determine if Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) will conduct research involving pathogens such as the Ebola and Marburg viruses, speakers for and against research at Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) faced off last night at a lengthy Boston City Council hearing on a proposed ordinance to ban that level of research in the city. The ordinance was put forth by Councilman Charles Yancey, who told the standing-room-only crowd that he feared that BSL-4 research could pose a serious risk to the health and safety of the community.

While Yancey and several opponents of BSL-4 research tried to persuade the city council to support the ban, proponents, including Barbara Ferrer (SPH’88), director of the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), and M. Anita Barry, director of the BPHC Infectious Diseases Bureau, argued that reliable safety precautions have been put in place. Representatives of the biotech industry also spoke in favor of BSL-4 research, maintaining that banning BSL-4 research would inhibit the growth of life sciences research in Boston.

Ferrer told the council that Boston has the toughest safety regulations on infectious disease research of any city in the country. She said that while there are 15 labs in the country that conduct research at BSL-4, Boston is the only city whose public health authorities regulate the permitting and inspection of the labs. She said the nine labs in Boston that currently conduct research at Biosafety Level 3 are also strictly regulated by the Public Health Commission. Ferrer told the council that her agency has been preparing for BSL-4 research since 2006 and has trained hundreds of police officers and firefighters to respond to potential emergencies.

Gloria Waters, a BU vice president and associate provost of research, told the council that she cares very much about NEIDL not only in her BU role, but also as a person whose family lives in the area. “BU and Boston Medical Center attract researchers and students who want to make the city a safer place to live,” said Waters. “No research will be classified, and details of all research are open for public consumption.”

Ronald Corley, NEIDL associate director and a BU School of Medicine professor and chair of microbiology, emphasized the promise of a research lab that can bring together expertise in many disciplines, such as chemistry, microbiology, and engineering.

“The great discoveries in science these days are coming from these kinds of multidisciplinary efforts,” he said. “The University’s mission is educating the next generation of scientists.” Corley said the mission of NEIDL is to develop vaccines, diagnoses, and therapeutics for emerging infectious diseases. “The NEIDL is not going to produce biological weapons, and it is not going to do classified research,” he said.

Barbara Ferrer (SPH’88), director of the Boston City Health Commission (BPHC), testifies at last night’s NEIDL hearing at Boston City Hall; at left is M. Anita Barry, director of the BPHC Infectious Diseases Bureau, and Boston Police Department Lieutenant Paul O’Connor.

Barbara Ferrer (SPH’88), director of the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), testifies at last night’s NEIDL hearing at Boston City Hall; at left is M. Anita Barry, director of the BPHC Infectious Diseases Bureau, and Boston Police Department Lieutenant Paul O’Connor.

Thomas Robbins, chief of the BU Police Department and executive director of public safety at BU, described the elaborate procedure designed to transport pathogens to NEIDL. He said every delivery is tracked with two GPS devices, one on the delivery vehicle and one in the package containing the pathogen. Robbins also talked about extensive background checks, including psychological screening and drug screening, of all NEIDL employees.

Opponents of BSL-4 research at the hearing argued that safety studies of the lab conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were inadequate, and that NEIDL was constructed in “an environmental justice community” without sufficient dialogue with residents. Roxbury-based community activist Claire Allen claimed that BU failed to adequately communicate with local residents during the initial planning stages of the NEIDL construction. “We have never tried to compete with BU,” she said. “We are the most polite protestors in the world.”

Mel King, a longtime community leader and former executive director of the New Urban League of Greater Boston, said the community surrounding NEIDL was never asked if it wanted a biological research lab in its backyard. King, who repeatedly referred to the lab as a “bio-terror lab,” called for ending all research at all biosafety levels.

Mary Crotty, a nurse attorney for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said she had opposed NEIDL since 2005, and feared that local hospitals were not prepared to handle a “surge” of medical emergencies that might result from an accident.

Construction of the $200 million NEIDL facility was completed in September 2008, but controversy and litigation have kept much of the building’s 192,000 square feet of laboratory space closed. The lab is part of a national network of secure facilities dedicated to the development of diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments to combat emerging and reemerging infectious diseases.

Last year, after legal challenges to a NIH assessment of risks associated with BSL-3 and BSL-4 research, US District Court Chief Judge Patti Saris ruled that a Final Supplementary Risk Assessment was sound, and that such research could be conducted safely at the BU Medical Campus site. The risk assessment examined a series of scenarios and potential consequences of procedural failures, including containment system failures and malevolent acts.

In a 76-page opinion, Saris found that “the NIH provides sufficient scientific support for its ultimate conclusions that the risks to the public are extremely low to not reasonably foreseeable, and the differences between the Boston location and the suburban and rural sites are not significant. In light of the benefits of placing the lab in an urban area like Boston, which provides opportunity for expert medical research collaboration, and the low risk of harm to the public, NIH’s decision is rational.”

In March of last year, the Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs gave approval for the lab to conduct research at Biosafety Level 3 and Biosafety Level 4. Since then the lab has received additional required approval for BSL-3 research, and scientists at the lab are now gearing up for BSL-3 tuberculosis research that could someday stem the disease’s lung lesions in humans and prevent TB transmission by coughing. Research at Biosafety Level 4 requires a wait for further approvals from state courts, the Boston Public Health Commission, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An editorial in the April 13 Boston Globe advised readers that passage of Yancey’s ordinance “would be to overestimate any danger that the biolab poses to nearby residents—and to retreat from the singular role that Boston plays as the world’s greatest repository of life-saving expertise.”

The Globe cited the elaborate security measures that protect the lab, including perimeter fencing and walls that would resist truck bombs, auxiliary generators, a requirement that scientists who work in BSL-4 biohazard areas clean up after themselves and assist with medical emergencies that occur in biohazard areas, and elaborate biometric security systems in high-level laboratory areas that require the presence of two scientists, “reducing the possibility that one scientist working alone with pathogens could spirit a vial outside.”

The newspaper also pointed out that Yancey “had been invited more than once to tour the lab but hasn’t yet done so.”

The Boston City Council is expected to decide whether or not to vote on Yancey’s proposed ordinance in the coming weeks.

Amy Laskowski contributed additional reporting for this article.

Art Jahnke

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

17 Comments on Researchers Cite Experts’ Findings of NEIDL Safety

  • H1N1 on 04.17.2014 at 7:26 am

    OK so the CDC is playing around with the swine flu aka H1N1 and coincidentally the virus re-emerges after nearly 90 years. Just saying…..

    • silver_mike on 04.17.2014 at 1:06 pm

      Oh! Please, someone has been watching a bit too much Fox News. Perhaps the poor conditions in which our ever meat industry is keeping our swine has something to do with it? The ever growing demand from countries like China where demand for pork has skyrocketed because more and more people can now afford it has pushed our meat industry to pack swine in less than hygienic conditions. The possibility of another H1N1 pandemic is yet another reason to fund research at all bio-safety levels.

    • JM on 04.18.2014 at 9:34 am

      Somebody forgot to take their paranoia medication. Just saying…

  • BU Parent on 04.17.2014 at 10:56 am

    This is understandably a charged issue. But, failure to tour the facility despite invitation pretty clearly says a politician is reacting in knee jerk fashion to please constituents or manufacture a stage. H1N1 emerged in China where the nih has no control. Choose to remain ignorant of the basis of diseases requiring class 4 and choose to become their victim. Choose to understand their biology and fear nothing. Start with choosing to understand the systems put in place to perform the work safely, not ignoring the good faith efforts of the people and institutions who are trying to be responsible and accountable.

  • Fighting Ebola on 04.17.2014 at 11:16 am

    Guinea is experiencing the worst Ebola outbreak in 83 years.
    Read the CDC information:

    How are we going to find a cure /vaccine if the research facilities cannot operate?

    Charles Yancey refused to even enter the lab.
    He is not a scientist and has no idea what a great facility is right in his backyard.This is a great DIS-service to the community he says that he represents.
    Mel King is 85 years old. He advocated for the community many years ago.
    HE may not have responded to the many many mailings, newspaper notices or attended the any of the community meetings regarding the NEIDL
    Unfortunately he does not have any understanding of the current state of biomedical research. Yes he did call for ending all research. Does that make sense?

    I encourage all of you who are registered voters to contact the city council to NOT pass Mr. Yanceys ordinance.

  • Researcher on 04.17.2014 at 11:33 am

    With over 100 combined years of operation in the US, there has never been a release of an agent from a BSL4 lab. There is a clear record of safe research which is in large part due to regulations and inspections from the CDC, the NIH. Research at the NEIDL would comply with these regulations plus those from the Boston Public Health Commission as well as internal (BU) regulations. The research that would be conducted at the NEIDL would not only benefit those individuals in countries where these emerging and re-emerging diseases are endemic but would also protect us here from cases due to foreign travel (which HAS happened in the past and likely will happen again).

    If you would like to show your support of the important research that the NEIDL would be conducting, please consider signing this petition to oppose the possible ban of BSL4 research in Boston.


  • nathan on 04.17.2014 at 3:31 pm

    “the differences between the Boston location and the suburban and rural sites are not significant.”

    Think about that a minute.

    Within 10 minutes of leaving the building, an airborne pathogen could reach tens of thousands MORE people in the NEIDL location than in a rural location.

    Within 10 minutes of leaving the building, a pathogen spread by contact could be deposited on Red line, green line and commuter rails.

    Either the safeguards are so thorough and so good that no chance of accidental infection or deliberate infection IS POSSIBLE (humans are perfect aren’t they), or the stuff is so dangerous that everyone in the state is at risk if an infectious agent is released (the Andromeda Strain scenario.)

    – –

    I know they wrote it down in a really important REPORT, but that conclusion is pretty much impossible to reach unless one knows the desired answer before doing the analysis.

    • Karsten on 04.17.2014 at 7:10 pm

      There are already existing BSL4 laboratories in multliple major cities and there has never been a release of pathogen into the community. In addition none of the viruses that will be worked on in the BSL4 lab in the NEIDL are airborne/ transmitted via air. They are transmitted via blood and therefore not easily spread even on a full T, bus or train. So yes the risk is the same between a rural or urban location based on how the viruses that will be studied at the NEIDL are transmitted. Please educate yourself about what research will be done in the NEIDL before posting information that is not not relevant for any of the agents used in BSL4 at the NEIDL.

      • nathan on 04.18.2014 at 12:02 pm

        I have read at least 7 articles on NEIDL in the last few years, including these here at BU, not a one of these has mentioned that ALL planned activities at NEIDL at all levels are limited to blood borne pathogens. (Do a search on THIS article and you will not see the word blood mentioned.) – Do a search on BSL-4 and you will not see this mentioned.

        If I am uninformed on this distinction, after paying casual attention for years. MAYBE the problem is in how the information is presented.

        The CDC website publication I googled doesn’t mention that http://www.cdc.gov/biosafety/publications/bmbl5/bmbl5_sect_iv.pdf

        NOW please, please tell me HOW I was supposed to educate myself on this point – and also, if it is not well published, why I should believe that restriction will continue to apply in the future.

        • John Murphy on 04.18.2014 at 3:00 pm

          Hemorrhagic fever viruses are transmitted by bodily fluids from patients in the late stage of disease when viral load is very high – so, blood, urine, feces, saliva,mucus, tears etc. etc. It is important to note that none of these viral agents are spread by the aerosol route (the only exception maybe Nipah –
          there is one report that suggests that). The viral agents that will be studied at BSL-4 in the NEIDL are all categorized as hemorrhagic fever viruses. In BSL-3 we will study both viral and bacterial pathogens. In general, these pathogens are transmitted by the aerosol route (e.g., the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, tularemia, etc., and those viruses like
          SARS, Hantavirus, etc.).
          John R. Murphy, Professor of Medicine and Microbiology, and
          Director ad interim, National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories

    • Kate on 04.17.2014 at 8:32 pm

      Which airborne pathogen do you mean? None of the BSL-4 agents that are being proposed for the NEIDL are airborne. Also, how do you propose that this hypothetical release will happen? If you read the risk assessment, you’ll see that both accidental and intentional incidents have been thoroughly studied.

      Remember, these are naturally occurring pathogens. They’re already in the environment. As we have just seen this week, airports are far more dangerous for pathogen transmission than any BSL-4 facility. In fact, these labs are exactly the kind that need to be running to come up with effective therapeutics and vaccines to protect us! You can ignore their existence and hope for the best, but that doesn’t mean a naturally infected person can’t accidentally fly here anyway.

    • silver_mike on 04.17.2014 at 8:33 pm

      Pathogens that will be investigated at the NEIDL are BLOOD BORN PATHOGENS that cannot live long in the environment. They cannot be aerosolized. That means someone would have to stumble on the blood of an infected individual and somehow get it in their blood stream. Read Dr. Barry’s statement to the councilors or Google it, stop assuming things from what you’ve seen in movies.

      If you want the City of Boston to be safe against new and emerging infectious diseases, well better start petitioning the council to shut down the airport. Because guess what, chances are the next pandemic won’t be from a lab but from an International traveler.

    • Scientist on 04.18.2014 at 7:23 am

      None if the viruses that will be studied in the BSL4 at the NEIDL are airborne/ transmitted via air. They are transmitted via blood so there is NO easy spread. This is true for a full T or bus or in a rural area and that is why there is no difference in risk.

  • Joseph on 04.17.2014 at 8:13 pm

    There are always risks and safety issues to balance. But it is clear that hysteria is easily achievable by politicians who choose to fuel debates through rhetoric vs. facts. The fact that Councilor Yancey has not read the reports or even bothered to tour the facility is very telling. Lets just stick our collective heads in the sand.

    From 2005-2009, there were an average of 3,533 deaths due to swimming in the United States. Should we ban swimming pools?

    In 2012, 651 people died from boating accidents. Let’s make boating illegal in Boston.

    There are more than 480,000 deaths annually from smoking (including deaths from secondhand smoke). That’s about ten deaths per day. Let’s ban smoking.

    Oh, what about driving? There are roughly 35,000 deaths per year from driving accidents. Therefore, we should ban driving.

    About 347 people die each year from drowning in boating-related incidents. No more boating, and by the way, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans is significantly higher than that of whites across all ages. The fatal drowning rate of African American children ages 5 to 14 is almost three times that of white children in the same age range.

    The fact that with over 100 combined years of operation in the US, there has never been a release of an agent from a BSL4 lab is obviously irrelevant. The fact that US District Court Chief Judge Patti Saris ruled that a Final Supplementary Risk Assessment was sound, and that such research could be conducted safely at the BU Medical Campus site, and the fact that the Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs gave approval for the lab to conduct research at Biosafety Level 3 and Biosafety Level 4 after extensive review of all of the safety measures is also irrelevant. City Counselor Charles Yancey knows better than scientists, lawyers who have argued the case, the National Institute of Health, preeminent scientists – and he hasn’t even bothered to tour the facility. I wonder if he has read any of the scientific reports.

    This would be pretty silly if it didn’t involve finding cures to serious and deadly diseases.

  • TnNative on 04.18.2014 at 7:55 am

    From an outsider’s point of view, it appears that the councilmembers had this on their mind regardless of safeguards. I work in these facilities and the security and safety mechanisms keep these environments the SAFEST environment to work with infectious diseases.

  • PK on 04.28.2014 at 10:37 am

    There’s a lot of knee jerking on both sides here, and Yancey has done his constituents no favor by failing to tour the facility. But here a couple things to think about: If such massive safeguards are necessary, then why site the lab in a densely populated urban area to begin with? And, if there are already multiple BSL4 labs in operation, why is another one needed?

  • John Smith on 05.01.2014 at 2:36 pm

    Just curious, if the federal court ruled that research should be allowed but the delay is from the state/local courts, could the federal government annex the building, declare it federal property, and allow research to begin?

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