I’ve long thought that locating a research facility designed to study the world’s most dangerous pathogens (Ebola, anthrax, dengue fever, etc.) in the densely-populated South End was a lousy idea. I always thought it smacked of hackery trumping sensible policy (jobs! prestige! politically-connected players! and hey, what could possibly go wrong?), with an uncomfortable overlay of once again screwing a relatively poor neighborhood because it’s possible to do so. (No one ever talked up locating this thing in Cambridge, despite the proximity to Harvard’s and MIT’s researchers.) Previous posts on this, some of which date back to BMG’s infancy, are here, here, here, and here.
No, no, no, the doubters have repeatedly been told — it’s completely safe. The federal government said so. But now it turns out that the federal government’s study was a catastrophe, to the point that it didn’t meet “basic standards applied to scientific research.”
A federal review of a controversial laboratory being built by Boston University was “not sound and credible” and failed to adequately address the consequences of highly lethal germs escaping from the project, according to a blistering report released yesterday by an independent panel of scientists. Authors of the report from the National Research Council said the federal analysis was so woefully incomplete that it did not meet basic standards applied to scientific research. If the federal review had been submitted for publication in a medical journal, “it would have failed,” said Gary Smith, a report author and University of Pennsylvania epidemiologist….
The new independent analysis looked at a safety review done in August by the National Institutes of Health, which concluded that the lab posed no danger to its South End neighborhood….
In its analysis, the 11-member National Research Council’s scientific panel expressed particular frustration with the NIH’s evaluation of a worst-case scenario for the release of deadly organisms into the South End.
Specifically, the scientists complained that the federal agency had studied the wrong scenarios, looking at germs such as Ebola that can’t be transmitted easily, rather than dengue fever, which would pose more of a threat because it is carried by mosquitoes.
The National Research Council also said that as the NIH weighed the risks of a germ escape, it should have considered health problems already endemic to the South End. The neighborhood, which has a substantial number of low-income residents, has a high burden of diseases such as AIDS that leave people more susceptible to germs.
“The committee was dissatisfied with the depth of exploration of such issues,” the report said.
One might expect that local officials, having learned of the utter inadequacy of NIH’s initial review, would be expressing concern and determination to get the safety study right. One’s expectation, however, would be wrong.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the lab’s staunchest defender in the political realm, remained unflinching in his support, declaring that the facility is “too important not to go forward,” because of its scientific mission and the jobs it will create.
With all due respect, Mr. Mayor, that makes no sense at all. Government’s first, most basic job is to ensure the safety of the people living in its jurisdiction. No facility, no project, nothing, is “too important not to go forward” if it poses a serious danger to the safety of local residents. Even if they happen to be poor.
Menino has frankly been dreadful on this project. When the news broke in 2005 about an accidental release of tularemia at a BU level-2 facility — which BU inexplicably delayed reporting for nearly two weeks, in apparent violation of legal requirements — Menino claimed that BU “didn’t bungle it.” But that’s silly — BU did bungle it. And rather than take anything said by those who oppose the project seriously, Menino accused them of dealing in “hysteria and fear.” And even today, with the uncomfortable revelation that NIH’s review of its own project was hopelessly inadequate, Menino refuses even to acknowledge that there might be an issue worth looking into. Kinda makes you wish that a couple of the 40 Bostonians mentioned by this week’s Phoenix as potential mayoral contenders are seriously thinking about ramping it up. (Mayor Gabrieli … hmmmmm …)
Fortunately, NIH appears to be taking the new report seriously, and has committed to getting the study right (“We cannot go forward without ensuring everybody – public, scientists who work there, ourselves – that in fact what we’re proposing to do and what Boston University is doing is completely safe,” [NIH director Zerhouni] said. “I will leave no stone unturned.”). Meanwhile, litigation continues in both the state and federal courts over whether the lab should be allowed to open. (The building is about 70% complete, but less than 15% of it is devoted to the super-scary viruses.) This one’s not over yet, folks.