Federal review of BU’s scary-virus biolab was hopelessly inadequate

(Remarkable - promoted by Bob)

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.

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10 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Menino far too comfortable

    I had to laugh when I read in Steve Bailey's Globe column today that city officials refused to reveal to Bailey how much they spent on legal fees to settle what sounds more like a personal vendetta than a pressing public interest issue. I think that all too often people in public office forget whose money they're playing with. Could it be a case of "La ville, c'est moi"? Also, I agree about the Biolab.

  2. Government's first, most basic job is to ensure the safety of the people

    Government's first, most basic job is to ensure the safety of the people, except in Boston, where job one is their own campaign coffers.

    Every single elected official supporting this idiotic lab talks about the money and jobs that would be lost if this lab doesn't open as Level 4. However, in the federal courtroom, the federal judge forced BU to admit (after at least a dozen attempts to dodge the question) that even if BU cannot open as Level 4, they can still operate as Level 2 or 3.

    It is not now and has NEVER been the case that any jobs will lost. The space will not sit empty and unused like some abandoned factory loft. Not one square inch of this lab will go unused if the Level 4 is blocked. Everytime you are told that this stupid Level 4 lab must go forward because of the jobs that would be lost, think LIAR, think WEASEL.

    • Same quality?

      So you're fairly certain that the same quality of job is going to be there?  There wouldn't have been a price premium on the jobs in a BL4 enviroment that would have required more specialized skills and more theoretical risk?  

      Wouldn't this be a biotech equivalent of replacing decent auto manufacturing jobs with Wal Mart greeters?

      • There will not be a price premium, because this isn't a factory.

        No, there will not be a price premium on the job, because the jobs that are being brought up (ad nauseum and out of context) are the construction jobs and trade union jobs. Once the lab is completed, regardless of the level of the work allowed, the trade union workers and construction jobs will move on to other construction projects.

        When the flawed report was presented at Faneuil Hall, the dozen or more people who supporting the lab and talked about "the jobs that would be lost", they were talking about the construction jobs, as if a "stop work" order was about to be issued soon.

        The majority of the "actual" work on the pathogens themselves will be done by Boston University students and researchers, who will conduct research and write peer reviewed articles and seek diplomas at Level 2 and Level 3 work just as well as at Level 4. Does anyone actually believe that a Doctor with a 6 or 7 figure salary is going live in the neighborhood itself, or will they commute in from Belmont or Wellesley.

        Using your analogy, since BU is tax exempt in Boston, the difference is between buying a luxury automobile from Germany, or a luxury automobile from Japan. Either way, the vast majority of the money will never make it into Boston, in which we have to suffer all the risk and see no benefit whatsoever.

        • You are overlooking three things

          There will not be a price premium, because this isn't a factory.

          One, an expanded research facility at BU may give the university an opportunity to attract research grants from the federal government and private industry, that it would not be able to attract otherwise.

          Two, developments at the research facility may help BU bring in royalty money on at least the developments sponsored by the federal government.  It is not unusual for a government grant to pass along royalty rights to the universities.  Consider it welfare for the universities, if you like, but it's true.

          And, three, even though the lab may not itself be a factory, it may spur development of "factories" in eastern Massachusetts.  Such has not been unheard of over the last few decades, notably in computer hardware and software, and also in biotech.

          • Why stop there.

            Consider the vast amounts of money Boston University could make if we decided to install nuclear missile silos in Boston Common. Think of the grants and the royalties these would bring.

            Seriously, the reason nuclear missiles are located in places like Nebraska is: 1) If one blows up, few people will die. 2) If one is targeted and is hit, few people will die. 3) If one is targeted and is missed, few people will die.

            Boston University has ancillory locations in Peterborough, NH and Tyngsborough, MA. There are also closed down military bases all over the US, that would have miles of buffer zone around it. Locating this idiotic lab somewhere other than downtown Boston does not preclude Boston University's involvement.

            Finally, as people bring up in zoning debates all the time, if this was such a good thing for Boston, why did they have to lie about it? Why explore the wrong pathogens, or misrepresent the alternate sites? Why talk about construction and trade union jobs when they will stop as soon as the building is completed? Why talk about this a encouraging economic development when the work is going to classified by the Pentegon?

  3. It strikes me that...

    ...if the facility is 70% completed, it's a bit late in the game to complain about it.  (I know you've been complaining about it before, but apparently the complaints have fallen on deaf ears.)  It strikes me that one of the important things that now should be done is to ensure that stringent safety protocols are being implemented and enforced.  As to that, it seems to me unlikely that a researcher would want to allow safety protocols not enforced: since they would be in closest proximity to the pathogens, they would be the first to be infected during an accident.  

    Unless, of course, they plan on wearing the equivalent of space suits in their work at the lab, which is highly unlikely.

    Note to Mike_Cote re Does anyone actually believe that a Doctor with a 6 or 7 figure salary is going live in the neighborhood itself, or will they commute in from Belmont or Wellesley. it's not entirely clear what this is supposed to mean.  The city of Boston, like the town of Wellesley, cannot implement a local income tax on persons with 6 or 7 figure salaries.  And, as noted above, they, as presumptive researchers, would be putting themselves at risk in the event of an accident.

    • As Mike noted upthread,

      the fact that the building is nearly done doesn't mean it has to open as a level 4.  Only a small percentage (13%, I think) of the building is designated for use as a level 4 facility, and even that portion of it presumably could be used in some other way.

      As for safety protocols, sure, no one wants accidental releases to occur.  The point is, though, that things happen when humans are involved.  In fact, things did happen in another Boston University-run facility (a Level 2 lab).  And they handled it unbelievably badly.  See the main post for links.

      I think Mike's point about the doctors living in Wellesley is to counter one of the arguments of those advocating for locating the facility in Boston.  Some say that the proximity to the rest of BU's medical campus is important.  But that seems odd, since it's likely that very few of the people that will work at the new facility reside anywhere nearby.  More likely, they live in the 'burbs, so putting the facility in a less densely-populated area wouldn't have caused logistical problems.  Only political ones.

      • Um, maybe...

        I think Mike's point about the doctors living in Wellesley is to counter one of the arguments of those advocating for locating the facility in Boston.

        Just to let you know, the last time that I had a corporate positions in Boston and Cambridge--I was living in Wellesley--it was a monumental pain in the rear to get into Boston and Cambridge.  Rts. 128 and 495 were far more convenient.

        Why is the lab being constructed in downtown Boston?  I have no idea.  Universities in Cambridge are operating labs out in the 'burbs.

  4. Yes

    but then again powers higher than government have dictated that they want a lab/ebola distribution center available in case of emergency/false flag operations. Hows that for cynical!

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