04/26/2013 03:40 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2013

Pathogens Welcome: BU Biolab Update

On April 11, attorneys representing opponents of Boston University's (BU) Level IV Biolab (highest level pathogens), which has been built in the middle of Boston's populous South End, argued against the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) risk assessment of the lab (Allen v. NIH).

BU has long argued that the intensive review, redundancies, security-based simulations, construction, and security protocols make the lab virtually error- and terror-proof. Opponents have responded by pointing to errors and accidents at similar labs; the inherent limitations of modeled simulations; the natural tendency of facilities, protocols, and supervision to degrade over time; and the impossibility of guarding against all types of terrorist attacks or internal subterfuge.

This might be seen as a he-said, she-said scenario except for three compelling reasons that stack the deck in favor of the lab's opponents.

First: When dealing with diseases such as Ebola, Anthrax, SARS, the 1918 flu that killed between 20-100 million people worldwide, and the pneumonic plague, even the most miniscule possibility of pathogen-release is unacceptable.

Second: The lab is in the middle -- like, really in the middle -- of one of the nation's premier cities which itself is the hub for the U.S.'s 10th largest metropolitan area. In many Bostonians' view, it is not coincidental that the neighborhoods closest to the lab are Boston's poorer, less fashionable areas despite the fact that many wealthier suburbs have land that would provide a far more isolated site for the lab.

Third: The lab will, in my view, undoubtedly be used for weapons research, which means two things: 1) developing more durable and mobile variations of Level 3 and 4 pathogens, which makes them more likely to spread; and 2) creating the seeds of future chemical arsenals.

In the opening salvos in Allen v. NIH, I was struck by several of the arguments presented by BU and the lab (whose full name is the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories at Boston University or NEIDL).

NIH Risk Assessment of "Close Contact" in city and suburbs

The NIH claims that siting the lab in the city is no more dangerous than in the suburbs because their studies show that, on average, a Boston citizen comes into "close contact" or "proximity" to another person for 10 minutes or more 44 times; in the suburbs, the number is 38. Hence, no big difference or, as BU's lawyer, Seth Jaffe said, "They're still pretty darn close."

This is a misleading argument. An infectious disease is only partially dependent on close interpersonal contact for 10 or more minutes. It can be spread by air, water, food, etc. without being spread person-to-person. Boston's population concentration allows for more efficient dispersal to potential hosts than do the suburbs. Also wind dispersal and pathogenic degradation serve to mitigate the infectious ability of any potentially escaped viruses or bacteria. If the lab were sited in a more isolated suburban area, the ability of a leaked pathogen surviving in sufficient concentrations to infect a population would be greatly reduced.

Terrorism Threat

Boston just witnessed the devastating toll wrought by two men, most likely acting alone, who set off (relatively) easy-to-construct explosive devices. One of them had been the target of warnings by Russia shared with the U.S. and had been investigated and interviewed by the FBI. Granted that security in the lab will be far more focused, the Marathon bombings demonstrate the fallibility of human systems in identifying, tracking, and monitoring potential threats. As was true of the two brothers, people change. A long-time, trusted lab employee could become a disgruntled, unbalanced, obsessed person whose proximity to true weapons of mass destruction inspires them to engineer an attack.

Foolproof Systems

No system is safe from one person intent on destruction from within. Nor are they safe from mistakes, as the history of virtually every other biolab demonstrates. Just last month a vial of Guanarito, which has caused deadly outbreaks in Venezuela, went missing from the University of Texas's Galveston National Laboratory. By the way, that's also a Level IV lab. Of course, according to BU, such an event at their Level IV lab is unthinkable.

Scott Weaver, the Galveston lab's scientific director, stated "that the virus was likely destroyed during the normal laboratory decontamination and cleaning process," as reported by Erin Mulvaney in the Houston Chronicle. Weaver stated that "a vial could have stuck to a figure or a glove and fallen to the floor of the laboratory," according to Mulvaney. Okay -- so much for fail-safe and fool-proof.

Weaver stated that a new system will "help eliminate human error from the process," relying on an "electronically encoded system." Okay. First we hear the labs are safe because the humans are thoroughly investigated. Then it turns out that human error is still a factor and must be eliminated. To do so, we'll rely on electronics, i.e., computers. And we all know those are utterly foolproof. How reassuring!

Review and Simulations

In Allen v. NIH, BU argued that the high quality of the experts who reviewed the lab, and the simulations that modeled security features, are further assurance against any problems at the lab. Of course, two Nobel scientists, among other experts, have spoken out against the lab. Experts can be found to support any point of view, whether it's against global warming or in favor of fracking. Not to say their opinion wasn't honest in the case of the lab, it's just that experts, no less than the rest of us, tend to be swayed by their guiding assumptions. If they believe that labs can be made fool-proof, they'll tend to discount scenarios that say they aren't.

As for simulations and modeling, they are absolutely dependent on the assumptions that govern them. They often ignore the anomalous event-path or the unquantifiable potential of someone who knows and thus purposefully side-steps all the installed security features.

The bottom line is this: given the potentially devastating effects of an "event" at a Level IV Biolab, and the alternatives for conducting effective medical research on such diseases, why in the world would such a lab be placed in the middle of Boston?