BOSTON — Construction on Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL) is proceeding as planned and is expected to open in August 2008, even as the project’s fate won’t be known until the state’s highest court hears arguments later this year from community activists opposed to its construction, according to four officials involved with the project.
“We’re well under way. We’re going to be complete with the concrete by the end of this month,” said Joe Jouvenal, on-site project manager for the NEIDL’s general contractor, a joint venture between Turner Construction and McCarthy Building Companies.
Jouvenal spoke at a panel discussion devoted to the project during “Bioregions: Impacting Global Discovery and Innovation,” a conference of the Association of University Research Parks, held here last week.
Joining medical, construction, and security professionals working on the NEIDL who spoke at the conference, he defended the project as safe and essential for combating both known infectious diseases and those that may arise in the future.
His statements came a day before opponents of the biosafety lab staged a protest timed to coincide with the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s annual meeting here.
BU’s $178-million, 192,000-square-foot NEIDL is intended to perform basic and clinical research into infectious diseases, which in recent years have included West Nile virus, Ebola, avian flu, and HIV.
“We know very little about how some of these organisms attach to the cell, how they enter that cell, how they affect that cell, how they multiply in that cell, what enzymes they use, et cetera, et cetera,” said Mark Klempner, professor of medicine at BU School of Medicine. “We also believe that we have the opportunity to become a training hub for people interested in emerging infectious diseases.”
The NEIDL is one of two National Biocontainment Laboratories; the other is at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, planned by the US National Institutes of Health to battle emerging infectious diseases in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a subsequent wave of anthrax attacks.
The NIH also designated 13 regional biocontainment laboratories, all of them Biosafety Level 3, including one at Tufts University in Grafton, Mass. (see related story, this issue).
BU has received $128 million from the NIH toward the biosafety lab; the university and its medical center will raise the remaining $50 million.
From the time it was first proposed in 2003, the NEIDL faced opposition from neighborhood residents who contended it would be unprepared to combat an accidental release of toxins outside its lab, and that the BSL-4 facility should operate in a less-densely populated neighborhood.
The Conservation Law Foundation and 10 residents living near the lab sitefiled a series of lawsuits in federal and state courts to overturn city, state, and federal approvals. The plaintiffs prevailed in July 2006 when Suffolk Superior Court Judge Ralph ordered a new environmental review with more information on the merits of a less-populated site for the lab as well as how well it could respond if a toxin escaped from the lab.
BU and the the NIH are appealing that decision with the Supreme Judicial Court, which is set to hear arguments in September. The SJC, the state’s highest court, bypassed an appellate court that was set to hear arguments last month.
Three months after the Suffolk Superior Court handed down its opinion, US District Court Judge Patti Saris, the judge presiding over the case, announced that BU and the NIH had agreed to conduct a further environmental study assessing its response to worst-case scenarios and two potential alternate locations for the lab: Tyngsboro, Mass., on the northern edge of the state, and Peterborough, NH, a short distance to the north.
This work will “likely will not be completed” before August or September, and would miss a public review draft originally expected in April, BU and the NIH told Saris in a Jan. 9 federal court filing.
The risk analysis will address the “potential threats to the community” arising from the use of “several” Category A, Biosafety Level 4 agents “expected to be studied” in the NEIDL.
The risk analysis will also “address the effects of a laboratory-acquired infection of a laboratory worker with Ebola; the transportation of a vector-borne agent, such as tick-borne encephalitis, an aerosol event involving a hemorrhagic fever, and the use of rDNA in monkey pox, which serves as a proxy for smallpox, even though smallpox will not be present” in the NEIDL, BU and the NIH said in the filing.
Once that study is done, Saris will decide whether to temporarily force the NIH to halt its funding for the lab plan until a comprehensive environmental review is conducted.
“We’re still waiting for that new environmental impact statement,” said Eloise Lawrence, staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, which represents opponents of the BU lab.
The wait shouldn’t be long for the additional study, technically a supplement to the lab project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, said Gary Nicksa, vice president of operations for BU.
“It is nearly complete. It should be coming out within weeks,” Nicksa told BioRegion News after the AURP conference.
The timing, he said, was up to the NIH since it has conducted the supplemental study on its own. An NIH spokesman did not reply to an e-mail message seeking comment.
“We … believe that we have the opportunity to become a training hub for people interested in emerging infectious diseases.”
Addressing the AURP conference, NEIDL project manager Jouvenal said the project incorporated high-safety features used in the construction of nuclear plants and clean rooms. For example, to prevent materials escaping from the biosafety lab, the concrete cannot have even a pinhole of space. To choose a concrete subcontractor, Turner/McCarthy asked companies to submit 10 samples, then let them sit six months to see which were usable. Only four subcontractors passed that test.
As a result, it has taken 10 to 12 days to build each 20 to 30 linear feet of concrete wall, versus three to four days for conventional labs. Each 16-inch thick, 5,000-foot concrete floor slab took an average of 22 days to build, versus one day for typical lab.
“If it was not absolutely the 100-percent quality that we expected, it would have to be totally taken out. We don’t repair,” Nicksa said. “[For] this particular project we had to take our expectations and go to zero tolerance for error.”
Kevin Tuohey, executive director of operations and public safety for the BU Medical Center, said the NEIDL would not seek waivers from safety rules for BSL-4 labs. They include biometric and card access to enter the building; complete changes of clothing to enter labs; and sealing all labs airtight, down to the seams, joints, and double sets of doors.
The extra bio-containment and security requirements for NEIDL have pushed its construction costs to between $1,200 and $1,500 per square foot, more than double the conventional $400 to $600 per-square-foot cost for lab space.
BU said benefits from the project include more than 1,300 construction jobs and an anticipated 660 permanent jobs. The university will pay the city of Boston $1.9 million in job training and housing linkage payments, and BU and the medical center have promised to maintain previously agreed payments to the city — a combined $3.2 million in annual in-lieu-of tax payments and a combined $3 million in taxes.
Over the next 20 years, BU has projected the lab would generate $2.9 billion in economic activity in Boston.
The biosafety lab would be a freestanding building within BU’s BioSquare research park, where 582,000 square feet of space currently houses three buildings: the 200,000-square-foot Center for Advanced Biomedical Research, which opened in 1991; the 192,000-square-foot Evans Biomedical Research Center, opened in 1998; and the 190,000-square-foot 670 Albany St., opened in 2005.
BioSquare has rights for two additional buildings — a 230,000-square-foot space and a 200,000-square foot facility.
“Major pharmaceutical companies, particularly those involved in infectious disease research, are very curious about the [biosafety lab] building and very curious about what opportunities might be available for them to locate right next to a BSL-4,” said Michael Donovan, a senior associate vice president at BU. “There are companies out there, fairly large ones, that are interested in the fourth building and the fifth building.”
He declined to identify the companies.
However, at least one outside official believes the two bio-containment labs will have little affect on the broader Boston-Cambridge cluster.
“If you’re talking about Livermore and Los Alamos, that’s one thing,” said Phillip Sharp, institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The Boston community doesn’t have a lot of these labs. They really developed later than most of the infrastructure in Boston.”
Sharp discovered RNA splicing in 1977, and a year later co-founded Biogen, now Biogen Idec. He went on to head MIT’s Center for Cancer research, its Department of Biology, and its McGovern Institute for Brain Research.
Sharp also noted that the NIH’s funding for the Tufts and BU labs was a small proportion of the billions of dollars it awards in Massachusetts annually: $2.2 billion among 5,193 grants in 2006, according to NIH’s preliminary figures.
“Most of the federal money in Boston is coming through the hospitals,” Sharp said. “We’re trading defense dollars for healthcare dollars.”