A Biosafety Level 4 Facility in Boston: A Threat of Epidemic or a Defense Against Bioterrorism?
by Janice O'Brien
Every neighborhood has one. In my community it was a drug rehabilitation facility; one town over had a mental hospital. These are facilities that can provide needed services to society and help the community. Yet people often don't like driving past them and tend to avoid buying houses too close to them. Now intensify the situation; imagine that the town is a major American city and the drug treatment center is a dangerous weapons facility. With so many people nearby, and so much that could go wrong, why should it be located here? But what if the dangerous weapons facility could save lives? What if it could save the life of every person in the country, maybe even every person in the world?
Luckily for you, this hypothetical situation has turned into a reality. Boston University is constructing The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, a Biosafety Level 4 facility in the South End of Boston. In February 2006, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave the official approval to Boston University to build the facility. Proponents of the lab claim that it will be absolutely safe. The environmental impact statement released by Boston University assesses that the lab poses a “negligible” risk to the surrounding community. Opponents of the lab worry, however, that even with such strict safety as can be maintained in a BSL-4 facility, accidents can happen, and with deadly microorganisms, accidents can be lethal.
There are four Biosafety Levels, from one to four. The numbers describe the dangers associated with the experimental organisms and necessary precautions to prevent disease. Biosafety Level 1 research involves organisms that have not proven dangerous to humans; this research can be conducted on an open bench as long as there is a sink nearby. Level 2 microbes are dangerous to humans, but are not airborne. Genetically modified organisms that have not been proven dangerous to humans also carry a BSL-2 classification. BSL-2 facilities have restricted access while researchers are handling the organisms; the facility may also have a biological safety cabinet. Level 3 microbes, if inhaled, threaten humans but also have treatments or cures. Thus, BSL-3 facilities have special air filters and double-door restricted access, and the workers must wear protective clothing.
However, BSL-4 facilities contain the most dangerous organisms known to mankind such as Ebola and weaponized anthrax (regular anthrax, which can be treated, is considered BSL-3). Specifically constructed to contain these organisms with heightened security, BSL-4 facilities have special air filtration systems, many airlocks, and ultraviolet-lit rooms. The Level 4 rooms are kept at a lower pressure than the surrounding environment so, in the event of a break in the system, air will flow in, not out. Currently three BSL-4 installations are in operation in the U.S. in Ft. Detrick in Frederick, Maryland (Department of Homeland Security); Atlanta, Georgia (Centers for Disease Control); and Hamilton, Montana (Rocky Mountain Laboratory, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases).
BSL-4 facilities contain the most dangerous organisms known to mankind such as Ebola and weaponized anthrax
Researchers in Level 4 labs must change clothes and shower many times before and after handling the organisms, and must wear full biohazard suits while working. These researchers are very experienced at working with other types of dangerous organisms and undergo thorough training, and no research is conducted alone: it is always done under the supervision of the lab director. The heightened security is necessary because the organisms are so dangerous; they are usually transmitted by air, lethal to humans, and have no vaccines or cures. Furthermore, research sometimes focuses on engineering weaponized organisms, making them even more deadly. These facilities test diseases known to cause epidemics and kill thousands.
CDC Scientists in a BSL-4 facility
(Credit: Centers for Disease Control)
Boston University claims that the city’s booming biotechnology industry makes Boston the perfect place for the facility. Researchers experienced in working with dangerous microbes live and work in Boston. The lab also will attract more biotech students to the University. Proponents of the lab claim that BSL-4 laboratories are the safest labs in the world and that there has never been a release from any of the five BSL-4 labs in North America in their seventy-seven years of operation. For those worried about siting the facility in an urban area, proponents point out that BSL-4 labs already exist in highly populated areas such as Atlanta, Georgia.
Opponents of the lab, such as the Council for Responsible Genetics, argue that those statistics about BSL-4 lab safety are faulty. The Council for Responsible Genetics has categorized dozens of accidents from Level 4 facilities since 1985, including the 2001 mail attacks, which used a weaponized Anthrax strain traced to a government facility. Opponents of the lab also respond that although Atlanta is an urban area, its population density is more than three times less than Boston's (see table below).Table 1: Population Densities of Cities Containing BSL-4 Facilities1,2:
Proponents of the lab also explain that extra procedures will be taken because of its urban locale. The building will be set back 150 feet from the road, and all deliveries will be made using the highway, not local streets. Armed security staff will be present twenty-four hours a day; two people must be always be present when hazardous materials are being handled, and special iris scanners will be used to ensure safety.
Community members are still concerned, even with all these extra precautions, since the lab will be located in the heart of a residential area. Should an antigen be released accidentally, unsuspecting individuals may contract the disease and think that "it's only the flu" and not want to waste time and money going to the doctor. Thus, an epidemic could be born.
Should an antigen be released accidentally, unsuspecting individuals may contract the disease and think that "it's only the flu" and not want to waste time and money going to the doctor. Thus, an epidemic could be born.
In contrast to the unsecured neighborhood surrounding the Boston
BSL-4 lab, the community around Fort Detrick consists of U.S. military personnel, military families, and civilians employed by the government. The population is fairly constant since not too many tourists visit the area. Residents have also been properly educated about living in the area. The Ft. Detrick residents know that if they feel sick, they should immediately go to a doctor. They may also be more likely to visit a physician because they have affordable government health care. Boston University has made little effort to educate the surrounding population of the public health concerns associated with the facility,3 and even if they did, there are thousands of tourists who visit Boston who are probably unaware of the potential hazards.
The Boston University laboratory is part of a government-funded plan to expand research on biological weapons. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave 128 million dollars each to Boston University and the University of Texas Medical Branch in 2003 to construct such facilities. The NIH hopes to boost the nation's dangerous microbe research to defend against potential bioterrorist attacks. Boston University senior vice president Richard Towle explains that bioterrorism “may be the biggest biomedical challenge in the coming decade, [and] Boston, as a biomedical-research center, ought to be involved.”4
Since BSL-4 labs are benefiting from the government push against biological weapons, they can use federal funding to find cures and vaccines for deadly infectious diseases, which could also help third world countries. Proponents explain that significant benefits could come from this research, but with only a handful of labs in existence, the amount of research that can be done is limited.
Some claim that the bioterrorism threat should not be overestimated and that government funds should be redistributed to research on more common diseases. Others argue that the focus on bioterrorism is good; a 'biodefense building boom' has created many jobs in this time of economic crisis."
Biodefense research has significantly more federal funding than research for more common diseases such as Alzheimer's. Some claim that the bioterrorism threat should not be overestimated and that government funds should be redistributed to research on more common diseases. Others argue that the focus on bioterrorism is good; a “biodefense building boom” has created many jobs in this time of economic crisis.
While the fiercest opponents of BSL-4 labs argue that research to find cures and vaccines for existing pathogens should never be conducted, many others are concerned with protecting the community, since bioweapons research is a reality that will go on. While the proposed Boston University facility does not violate the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention agreement that forbids “development, production and stockpiling of microbes or their poisonous products except in amounts necessary for protective and peaceful research,”5 it is worrisome to the surrounding community what exactly these standards mean. To study potential ways in which a microbe can be modified for weaponization, researchers have to create the weaponized organism, put it into a test animal to confirm it works the way it should, and then develop the vaccine or antidote. Many community members are deeply concerned about what could happen should one of these organisms, engineered specifically to kill, be released before an antidote has been developed.
Community members are not the only ones concerned. A group of 165 Boston-area scientists sent a letter to the mayor, city council, and Boston University trustees voicing their concerns and urging them to cancel the construction. While the Boston University environmental impact statement claims that the facility is a “negligible” risk, these concerned scientists explain that in fact there are, “real and potentially catastrophic risks to the health and safety of people in the local and surrounding communities.”6 A law is being proposed that would prevent any BSL-4 facilities from being operated in Boston. Four city council members have promised to push the ban.
Opponents of the lab worry that Boston University will be unable to contain an outbreak at this BSL-4 lab, considering how the university handled a recent accident in its BSL-2 facility. In May 2004, the Level 2 facility had an accidental release of highly infectious tularemia. The research was supposed to be conducted with a noninfectious strain. However, one person working with the tularemia became sick with symptoms of the disease. After three other workers complained of similar symptoms, tests revealed that they had come into contact with a live (disease-causing) strain. Perhaps more worrisome was the amount of time Boston University took to inform authorities of the mishap. Although the experiment was halted immediately, it was a week before the Public Health Department was informed, and another day after that until city officials were notified.7
The most disturbing aspect of this accident is the fact that Boston University did not update its safety report. This report, considered in the university's application for the BSL-4 facility, claimed that BU had not had any infections in its BSL-2 and BSL-3 labs in the past decade. It is uncertain whether the information regarding this accident would have changed the decision to build the BSL-4 facility, but the record should have been updated. However, assuming that university records are correct, one incident involving only four workers in ten years is not bad. However, for some, the tularemia incident calls into question the more general validity of Boston University safety reports for its BSL-2 and BSL-3 faciltiies.
While safety is certainly the most prevalent concern, some community members are also worried about aesthetics. According to reporter Kelly Field, “the nondescript lot in the university medical center's BioSquare research park... is the last stop on an 'environmental-justice tour' that takes participants past some of the biggest blights in adjacent Roxbury: the abandoned electrical- plating plant, the particleboard public housing, the bus depots, and the trash-transfer stations.”8 The building would simply be another ugly addition to the neighborhood. Community members don't want to have to look at AK-47-bearing guards who would be posted at the entrance ways for additional security.
Although the aesthetics of the facility are displeasing to some, perhaps they could be sacrificed for the jobs the construction would create. Estimates are that 1,300 construction jobs and 660 permanent employees would be necessary for the facility to run. Because of these estimates, Mayor Thomas Menino and area union leaders claim that the lab would “be a plum for the city, filling a void left by the manufacturing and shipbuilding industries.”9
The Boston University BSL-4 facility lies at the heart of much debate. If the facility is completed and put into operation, it will be the responsibility of Boston University and of the surrounding community to understand the dangers associated with the presence of a BSL-4 laboratory. If the facility is not built, jobs and potential life saving research could be lost. With so few high-security research facilities in the country, critical biological weapons research cannot be done in many places. This type of research could save our lives one day if we were to be attacked by terrorists. However, living in the presence of such a facility is risky. Is this the type of risk you are willing to live with? Is this the type of risk you are willing to ask others to live with?
Brainard, Jeffrey. "Federal Officials Give OK to Boston U. Lab." The Chronicle of Higher Education 52.24 (2006): A.30.
Cragg, Dan. Guide to Military Installations . Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pa., 2001.
"Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction." Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Website. 10 April 1972. http://www.opbw.org/
Dalton, Rex. "Infection Scare Inflames Fight Against Biodefence Network." Nature 433.7024 (2005): 344.
"Disease Threat; Boston University Researchers did Not Report Illness." Science Letter (2005): 501.
Enserink, Martin. "New Biodefense Splurge Creates Hotbeds, Shatters Dreams." Science 302.5643 (2003): 206.
Field, Kelly . "Residents Fight Boston U.'s 'BioSafety' Laboratory." The Chronicle of Higher Education 50.42 (2004): A.28.
Gronvall, Gigi. "National Academies' Report on Boston BSL-4 Laboratory." University of Pittsburg Medical Center : Center for Biosecurity. November 30, 2007.
Lawler, Andrew. "Biosafety Lab Fallout in Boston ." Science 307.5711 (2005): 827.
---. "Biosafety Laboratory on Defense in Boston ." Science 303.5655 (2004): 153.
---. " Boston University Under Fire for Pathogen Mishap." Science 307.5709 (2005): 501.
"OSHA Completes Investigation, Issues Citations, Letter of Significant Findings, Recommendations in Boston University Biosafety Lab Case." US Federal News Service, Including US State News (2005).
2 Cragg, Dan. Guide to Military Installations . Stackpole Books, 2001
3 Field, Kelly . "Residents Fight Boston U.'s 'BioSafety' Laboratory." The Chronicle of Higher Education 50.42 (2004): A.28.
4 Brainard, Jeffrey."Federal Officials Give OK to Boston U. Lab." The Chronicle of Higher Education
5 "Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction." Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Website. 10 April 1972. http://www.opbw.org/
6 Field, Kelly . "Residents Fight Boston U.'s 'BioSafety' Laboratory." The Chronicle of Higher Education
7 "Disease Threat; Boston University Researchers did Not Report Illness." Science Letter (2005): 501.
8 Field, Kelly . "Residents Fight Boston U.'s 'BioSafety' Laboratory." The Chronicle of Higher Education
9 Brainard, Jeffrey. "Federal Officials Give OK to Boston U. Lab." The Chronicle of Higher Education