Boston Debates Banning Deadliest Pathogens From New Biolab

U.S. military biological laboratory personnel undergo decontamination during a 2007 exercise in California. Boston is set to convene a hearing this week on whether to ban the study of highly sensitive disease agents at a recently completed Boston University laboratory.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
April 14, 2014, 10:36 a.m.

Bo­ston is set this week to de­bate wheth­er to ban a new, down­town biode­fense labor­at­ory from study­ing some of the world’s dead­li­est dis­ease agents.

A Wed­nes­day city coun­cil hear­ing is ex­pec­ted to con­sider a pro­posed city­wide pro­hib­i­tion on so-called “Biosafety Level 4” re­search, which can in­volve dis­eases for which there are no known cures. The ini­ti­at­ive marks the latest loc­al push­back against Bo­ston Uni­versity’s ef­fort to pur­sue the sens­it­ive patho­gen stud­ies at its re­cently com­pleted Na­tion­al Emer­ging In­fec­tious Dis­eases Labor­at­or­ies.

In his draft or­din­ance, Coun­cilor Charles Yan­cey said con­duct­ing such re­search at the site could en­able an agent such as Ebola or Mar­burg to es­cape in­to the city, either by ac­ci­dent or de­lib­er­ate ac­tion.

“I am not con­vinced we really need to in­vite that pos­sib­il­ity to the city of Bo­ston,” Yan­cey told the Bo­ston Globe in re­marks pub­lished in a Sunday ed­it­or­i­al.

Bo­ston Uni­versity has cri­ti­cized the ra­tionale be­hind the coun­cil meas­ure, ar­guing that the labor­at­ory’s se­cur­ity is strin­gent and any sens­it­ive re­search jus­ti­fied by the need to pre­pare against leth­al dis­ease agents.

A four-year risk study “con­sidered hun­dreds of pos­sible scen­ari­os that could po­ten­tially res­ult in an ex­pos­ure of a work­er to a patho­gen, or the re­lease of a bio­lo­gic­al agent [and] demon­strated con­clus­ively that BSL-4 labor­at­or­ies — built with mul­tiple backup re­dund­an­cies for its op­er­a­tions sys­tems — are ex­tremely safe,” the uni­versity said in a state­ment last month.

Sunday’s Globe ed­it­or­i­al sides with the school, and ar­gues that the site’s loc­a­tion would fa­cil­it­ate col­lab­or­a­tion with ex­perts throughout the re­gion.

“It’s un­der­stand­able why crit­ics of the bio­lab might prefer that the re­search take place in an isol­ated fa­cil­ity … [but that] would im­pede sci­ent­ists’ abil­ity to learn from one an­oth­er,” the news­pa­per said.

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