The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL), a high-security biolab constructed at Boston University, has been stalled by regulatory reviews and community opposition for nearly a decade. This month the lab finally started work at the Biosafety Level 2 (BSL-2) and hopes to expand into its full intended capacity of conducting BSL-3 and BSL-4 research.
NEIDL was a product of National Institutes of Health (NIH) federal grant funding awarded in 2003 to expand the biothreat research capabilities of the nation. During design and construction phases of the biolab, both NIH and Boston University performed Environmental Impact Studies which concluded that the risk to the community arising from the potential release of an infectious agent from the NEIDL was negligible.
Local citizens and public interest groups filed lawsuits in 2005 and 2006 at both the state and federal levels claiming that the environmental reviews inadequately assessed the risks that the NEIDL posed to the community. The lawsuits raised specific questions about the high-containment laboratory within the NEIDL, designated BSL-4, which accounts for about 16% of the overall facility.
In response to these lawsuits and at the request of a federal judge to perform additional risk analyses, NIH performed and published in February 2012 a Supplementary Risk Assessment to further analyze what adverse human health effects would occur from an accidental or intentional release of a pathogen from the NEIDL. The new assessment is also intended to address the issues raised in the state lawsuits.
The over 1,700 page document contains a detailed analysis of potential risks associated with the NEIDL and examines scenarios describing the likely fates of specific pathogens that might be involved in plausible procedural failures, containment system failures, and malevolent actions. The report also compares the potential public health consequences of biocontainment failures at three separate, proposed sites, each with different population characteristics corresponding to urban (the current Boston site), suburban (Tyngsborough, MA), and rural (Peterborough, NH) setting.
Residents turned out in force at a NIH-sponsored public hearing on April 19 to comment on the Draft Supplementary Risk Assessment. Most comments were highly negative and charged that the assessment was biased, that the community did not have the capabilities in place to deal with a lab-related emergency and that it was foolish to conduct research on highly contagious and deadly pathogens in such a densely populated location.
“Within a mile of that area is the largest and busiest bus terminal in the state of Massachusetts, with about 30,000 riders who move through there every single day, said City Councilor Tito Jackson. “It scares me beyond no end, and I went through the tour and the tour scared me even more.”
NIH is accepting comments on the Draft Supplementary Risk Assessment through May 1, 2012. Comments may be submitted via email to NIH_BRP@od.nih.gov. The full risk assessment, meeting slides and supporting documents are available here.