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A Level-4 Biolab Grows in Boston: Pathogens Welcome

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Boston's populous South End will soon be welcoming a host of new residents: ebola, anthrax, smallpox, bubonic plague, and various "recombinant" viruses and bacteria, courtesy of a new federal Level 4 BioSafety Lab (BSL-4) run by Boston University and the National Institute of Health. BSL-4s are devoted to researching, storing, and cultivating the most toxic biological substances on earth. Needless to say, Boston's residents have misgivings about their new neighbors. On the other hand, a broad spectrum of Boston politicians have lined up to support it. Jobs, you know, but more on that later.

Currently, the building is completed and ready to begin operating. But the struggle between neighborhood activists who oppose the lab and the powerful interests that support it is currently at a stalemate. And therein lies a tale whose outcome can affect the health and well-being of us all.

It may seem a no-brainer that one doesn't plunk a BSL-4 smack in the middle of a major city. While convenience does favor the Boston site -- some of the best scientists in the world already work within a couple of miles of it and it is close to major transportation terminals -- opponents argue that the dangers far outweigh the benefits, not just to their neighborhoods or metro Boston. Once loosed in a densely populated area, an outbreak of disease can easily spread nationally or globally.

The lab's proponents have a simple answer to these concerns: the lab is so safe and secure that odds are virtually zero that any accident or breach can lead to an infectious release of germs. The National Institute of Health (NIH) and BU have run multiple simulations that they claim proves the lab is as safe in Boston as at any suburban or rural site. Redundant systems, they assert, guarantee back-up for any foreseeable accident; the chance of an escaped pathogen infecting any individual is remote; and the notion that it could spread its contagion is simply scientifically unsupportable. These are the assurances with which Boston University, the NIH, and the feds seek to assuage community concerns.

Unfortunately for the lab, the National Research Council (NRC) did not agree with this sunny assessment of the its potential risks. On November 29, 2007, after reviewing all the risk analysis done by the NIH and BU, the NRC stated that:   "Most importantly, the Committee [NRC] was concerned that the model did not appear to recognize biological complexities and reflect what is known about disease outbreaks and other biological parameters." In other words, the lab's overseers conducted a risk analysis that ignored the most basic information needed to assess the lab's risks.

The NRC posed three basic "tasking' questions in their report. In the NRC's own words:
"1. Are the scientific analyses in the DSER [Draft Supplemental Environmental Review] sound and credible? Overall, the Committee believes that the DSER as drafted is not sound and credible.

2. Has the NIH identified representative worst case scenarios? The DSER as drafted has not adequately identified and thoroughly developed worst case scenarios.

3. Based on the comparison of risk associated with alternative locations, is there a greater risk to public health and safety from the location of the facility in one or another proposed location? The DSER does not contain the appropriate level of information to compare the risks associated with alternative locations." (italics added/BK)

How can this be? With all their simulations and back-up systems, all their esteemed scientists and resources, the numerous community meetings and feedback they solicited, why couldn't they deliver a satisfactory risk analysis? Is their claim that the risk of infection from the lab was virtually zero at all believable?

We will have to wait to find out. This past April, the NIH announced that it would take at least another year (from April) to review the lab's potential safety threats, a dramatic change from its earlier position, a change driven by the NRC's scathing review of the NIH's DSER (the Environmental Review). In the meantime, however, scientists have begun training at the lab, although without any bio-agents present. And just this week, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report saying that the nation needs much more rigorous oversight of its BioSafety Labs. The BU lab, if it opens, will be the seventh BSL-4 in the U.S. which, until recently, only had two; meanwhile, the GAO says we don't even know how many BSL-3 labs exist in the U.S. nor how many more are planned. (BSL-3's are nothing to sneeze at either). Meanwhile, Senate hearings will be starting up soon about the very issue raised by the GAO: who's minding the store, that is, the more than 1,500 biolabs currently in use in the United States.

The Boston lab has to be viewed in the context of an unreasoning expansion of biohazard facilities since 9/11 and the anthrax mail-attacks that occurred later that year. The wild, under-regulated increase in the number of biolabs was driven, like so many other security and military policies after 2001, by the atmosphere of fear and confusion cultivated by the Bush administration. Bush is no longer president but the Bush-era state-of-siege atmosphere is still part of the thinking of many government officials, the military, Homeland Security, the media, and many Americans as well.

The continuing blur of dramatic events makes it difficult to reverse the momentum of trends reinforced by eight years of dismal governance and spineless acquiescence on the part of the mainstream media and Congress. Between North Korean and Iranian nukes, war, global warming, superstorms, asteroid collisions, the Yellowstone super-volcano, tsunamis, and pandemics. our entire civilization is made to seem perpetually on the brink of disaster. Some of these threats are real; all of them are showcased in the nightly news, daily headlines, thousands of Internet sites, and the Discovery Channel. The news has gone beyond sensationalizing particular stories. Our entire public discourse is instantly sensationalized and it becomes harder to tell which threats are real and which manufactured or over-blown.

Swine Flu, for example, is definitely worthy of serious coverage, but solid reporting about the disease is interwoven with melodramatic visions of global calamity. It can no longer be otherwise in our society. Fears of pandemics have been fanned since long before Swine Flu emerged and even before SARS appeared. Again, it is important to be prepared for a possible pandemic, but this atmosphere of fear is used to justify a broad range of policies, including the mindless rush to build more bio-labs. As a nation, we are still awash in fear; it was not cleansed with the election of Barack Obama as president. And we still are in the grips of a military-industrial complex for whom projects such as the Boston Biolab are as much meat and potatoes as any multi-billion dollar weapon system, no matter how dubious the need.

In my next post about the Boston Biolab, we will examine more closely the safety issues surrounding the lab, the lack of fulfillment of promises about jobs made to the community, and the status of the current stand-off; hear from opponents and proponents of the lab; and consider its potential benefits and dangers.