By Seth Daniel
In the near future, Albany Street will not only be host to more emerging development, but also more serious emerging diseases such as Ebola and Marburg.
Few things have consistently been more provocative for such a long time in the South End than the Biolab proposal by Boston University, also known as the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL) on Albany Street. The final piece of that long journey came to an end on Wednesday, Dec. 6, when the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) gave the green light for the NEIDL to become a full Level 4 facility. The lab has been constructed and currently studies lower level, but still very serious, infectious diseases.
“The Boston Public Health Commission has issued a letter of approval and permit to the Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories,” read a statement released last week. “As a regulator of biological laboratories in Boston, BPHC carried out a rigorous review process of the NEIDL’s BSL-4 application, including a review of safety and security protocols, prior to issuing the BSL-4 permit.”
That permit gives the lab the highest clearance to work with pathogens such as Ebola and Marburg. According to Boston University, Ebola and Marburg are both rare but life-threatening viruses that have become global public health threats. There is no available FDA-approved vaccine or therapy for Ebola, which killed and sickened tens of thousands of people in West Africa in a 2014–2016 outbreak, or for Marburg. Ebola cases traveled to the United States and Europe during the 2014 outbreak.
The BPHC decision has many Southenders quite worried about everything from the diseases escaping into the community, to terrorists targeting the isolated facility.
Jamie Fox, president of the Union Park Neighborhood Association, and his wife, Sue Ann, have long been outspoken critics of the NEIDL.
Jamie Fox, who is also a professor of criminology, said in an op-ed in this week’s Sun that terrorism at the facility poses a risk that hasn’t been completely addressed.
“The concern is not just environmental, but also criminological,” he wrote. “Notwithstanding the exceptional internal and exterior design of the building along with the strict protocols concerning how deadly viruses are to be handled by research staff, outside threats of human origin will continue to pose an immeasurable risk.”
He said he respected the work done by BPHC and an impact analysis done by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – which determined that the risk of mishap was minimal – but felt there were no definite answers when it came to stopping those intent on sabotaging the facility.
“When it came to acts of terror, the group had no direct way to determine the probability or evaluate the consequences,” he said. “Much of the assessment concerning malevolent threats from within and without was based on expert opinion and speculation.”
That sentiment seemed to be echoed over and over again on the South End Forum community page, where numerous folks simply said they don’t feel completely safe with having such a facility next door.
Boston University didn’t respond to the Sun to comment on the news, but in an article published Dec. 6 in ‘BU Today,’ NEIDL Director Ron Corley said they were happy to get the final leg of the approvals. Corley started at the NEIDL in October 2014 with the mission of getting the Biolab to full, Level 4 capacity.
“We’re extraordinarily pleased,” said Corley in BU Today. “The BPHC permission is the last hurdle for our scientists being able to work with approved BSL-4 pathogens—specifically, Ebola and Marburg.”
In December 2016, the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued its approval for the Biolab to go to Level 4. Since that time, the BPHC has been the lone agency left to review the proposal.
BPHC said that review included at least 13 meetings of the Boston Biosafety Committee (a committee of scientific experts and community representatives). In the last year, BPHC’s Office of Biological Safety has been working with the NEIDL on getting documentation, including demonstrations of patient isolation procedures, first-responder training plans, and facilities maintenance procedures.
BPHC will continue to oversee monitoring efforts of the Level 4 lab, and will continue to coordinate with Boston EMS, Boston Fire, Boston Police and other agencies to ensure that any research done at the NEIDL complies with all applicable regulations, and to protect the health and safety of workers and residents.