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BIODEFENSE BRIEFING: Winner of $120 Million NBL Grant Catches Flak from Community Groups: A Sign of Biodefense Opposition?

NEW YORK, Oct.17 (GenomeWeb News) - On a parcel of land that abuts an urban neighborhood and Boston University Medical Center on one side, and two heavily traveled highways on the other, the university is planning to build its National Biocontainment Laboratory, which is to include a Biosafety Level 4 lab specially equipped for research on highly transmissible pathogens for which there is no known treatment, such as Ebola and Lassa fever.

 

While the university is pleased to have won a tough nationwide competition for a $120 million construction grant that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded Sept. 30 as part of its plan to build up the infrastructure for expanded biodefense research, some community groups are mounting an opposition to the building of the lab in this area of Boston.

 

Ellen Berlin, a BUMC spokesperson, called the award of the NBL "a very exciting grant," as the NBL could be key in producing therapeutics and vaccines that could "aid in the eradication or prevention" of diseases to be studied, and noted that "grants beget other grants."  She also said that it will create 660 permanent jobs, only 150 of which will be scientific jobs, and that the university had a program to train members of the surrounding community to become laboratory technicians.

 

But Penn Loh, executive director of Boston-based Alternatives for the Community and Environment, one of a number of groups that is opposing the lab, said, "from our perspective, BU has not made the case that this thing belongs in the community, will be safe and secure, and will provide significant benefits for local residents." He said the group and others voiced concerns and questions about the NBL when they attended initial public meetings held by the university after it announced it was competing for the NBL grant last spring, but "came away from initial meetings feeling very badly about the way that they interacted with the public."

 

Another group, he said, was rebuffed in its request for an annotated version of BU's proposal for the NBL. "As soon as we started to see that there was this wall up in terms of information, we felt that this [NBL proposal] doesn't make a lot of sense for the community."

 

Since then, ACE, along with a group that calls itself BUG Bloc (Boston University Germ-Bioterror Lab Opposition Coalition) have held protest marches, and in July got members of the Boston City Council to propose a city ordinance to ban BSL-4 labs. In September, ACE filed a letter of intent to sue the university-created limited partnership that is developing the NBL for violations of state environmental laws.  Now, said Loh, ACE is still trying to "build support" for the ordinance, and it, along with BUGbloc and others, has planned public hearings on the issue.

 

                        Since the opposition to the BU NBL centers as much around concerns about its role in economic development of low-income urban neighborhoods (Roxbury and a part of the South End), as around safety issues, it's hard to tell whether it forecasts a potentially larger movement to oppose biodefense research work akin to those movements that have at times thwarted agricultural biotechnology research or animal research.

 

When asked whether the Boston NBL opponents would favor moving the lab to a less densely populated area, Loh said they had not discussed this as a group. But, he said, "there are some of us who believe that labs such as this are not necessary," and "would rather see the funds going into these labs directed to higher priority public health needs."

 

At the other NBL that the NIAID funded Sept. 30, which is to be built at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, the only objections have come not from a local group, but from a tiny trans-national NGO, the Sunshine Project. The Austin, Texas- and Hamburg, Germany-based group, however, does not "oppose the lab per se," said Edward Hammond, the executive director. "The core issue is pertaining to transparency in the research. ... The reasons why the transparency is imperative relate mainly to treaty compliance issues insuring public accountability so that third parties can come to an independent assessment of the nature of the activities" at the lab.

 

The Sunshine Project has sought to force the institutional biosafety committee for the UTMB lab to disclose publicly the minutes of its committee meetings and other documents. The Texas Attorney General shot down their request under a state law that allows medical research institutions to keep documents from committees secret, but the group has filed a complaint before the NIH's office of Biotechnology Activities alleging that the lab's failure to disclose documents is in violation of the NIH guidelines for Recombinant DNA research.

 

But on a local level, the political landscape for the Galveston lab appears markedly different from the one in Boston.  Although the official start date for the NBL construction at UTMB is not until 2006 (it could be sooner, according to officials), on Oct. 9  Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the lab amid public fanfare, and toured another BSL-4 lab that has already been built on the UTMB campus with a combination of federal funding and private donations.  The Senator's visit was followed by an article about the lab in the Galveston Daily News Oct. 12, entitled "Officials: Safety at lab top priority," that offered reassurance to locals about the BSL-4 lab's safety. While the article did mention that there have been incidents at BSL-3 labs at Yale and in Singapore, where researchers have become sick from working with pathogens in the labs, it described the "series of locked doors and two security checkpoints" that people working in the BSL-4 lab will have to go through to get into the workspace, among other features.

 

David Walker, chairman of the UTMB department of pathology and executive director of the UTMB Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases, told GenomeWeb News that the university had taken a proactive, open approach to communication with the local community about any safety concerns related to the lab, holdng community meetings, and inviting everybody to the lab, and that it has a community advisory group that it meets with on a regular basis. "Just every time the questions come up, we try to address them honestly," he said. "And the questions can be as frank as any you can imagine, and we don't stop until we've done the best to answer the questions. And people do, have gone away satisfied. Maybe some day they won't have the answers and not be satisfied, and in that case, it will be up to us to dig in more."

 

Walker has been doing research at BSL-4 labs for quite some time-even before biodefense became a proiority, and is most interested in working with viral pathogens such as Lassa virus and hantavirus.  He started working in 1996 to get the initial BSL-4 lab built at UTMB, in order to further research to develop treatments to these and other emerging infectious diseases. 

 

As far as safety concerns go, he pointed out that BSL-4 labs have a perfect safety record "in terms of there never being a case spread to the outside community and the source being the lab," (something that BU has also noted) but also said that the UTMB lab has "something like eight or ten" layers of security that a person has to go through before reaching the lab, including levels that require biometric identification; and that people working in the lab have to wear the special pressurized "space suits" that allow them to breathe filtered air and prevent air from the surrounding environment from getting in, not to mention the submarine-like doors which hold in the air with negative pressure. (In a term that has become cliché, these labs have been compared to a submarine inside a bank vault.)

 

"I used to work in a BSL-4 lab as the CDC," said Walker. "And you could look out and there's a daycare center with children there outside." He also pointed out that Health Canada, the Canadian equivalent of the US Centers for Disease Control, has located is main BSL-4 lab, part of the Canadian Science Center for Human and Animal Health, in the middle of the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

 

In fact, the Winnipeg lab, like the proposed BU NBL, is near a residential neighborhood. "There are houses just outside the perimeter," said the center's spokesperson, Heather Plett-Laurendeau.  And, like the proposed BU NBL, the center faced stiff opposition from the community. "At one point there were people trying to push it outside of the city," Plett-Laurendeau said.

 

This opposition peaked in 1999, amid news reports in the Montreal Gazette and Toronto Globe and Mail as well as other outlets, that 2,800 liters of untreated waste water from the lab had been dumped into the city's sewer system that summer. There was no actual harm to the community, because none of the high-level pathogens had actually been delivered to the center, and it was not in actual operation yet. But there were some indications that the center itself had not made the community aware that this spill had occurred. The result: an incident command system was set up with the involvement of community members to not only act on any incidents, but notify people of the level of threat each incident posed.

 

Now, perhaps in the wake of SARS, for which the facility was a main site of animal experimentation, and after extensive talks with the community, Plett-Laurendeau said that many who once opposed it have become supporters. 

 

It's often a mistake to assume that what happens in Canada will translate to the US (look at the Metric system), but given this experience, people involved in the current BU brouhaha may want to look to the Winnipeg example for guidance.

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