By James Alan Fox
“If you build it, they will come,” a much-overused expression for just about any kind of venture, originally referred to a Field of Dreams ballpark in an isolated Iowa cornfield that would attract the unsettled spirits of disgraced ballplayers. In the case of the Boston University National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (Biolab, for short) on Albany Street, which has stood for years awaiting clearance for research on dangerous pathogens like Ebola, it is more like, “If you open it, they may come.”
The “they” in this instance are a lot more worrisome than a team of ghosts with baseball caps and leather gloves. The “they” include nefarious folks — terrorists and saboteurs — who would see the facility as a prime target for their malicious schemes. And the “it” refers to a Biosafety Level 4 research lab similar to those around the country that have experienced mishaps in recent years.
Despite a healthy dose of resistance from South Enders to a perceived health and safety risk, an environmental consulting outfit concluded that the risk is “extremely low or beyond reasonably foreseeable.” That was enough to convince Mayor Marty Walsh, once an opponent of the permitting Level 4 research anywhere in Boston, that the facility met “the strictest safety procedures” and helped pave the way for the Boston Public Health Commission to give its final approval for Level 4 research to commence.
However, the concern is not just environmental, but also criminological. 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.
I respect the hard work involved in preparing the NIH-sponsored impact analysis which determined that the risk of mishap was minimal. The assessment team did its very best to estimate the likelihood and impact of such threats as a Sandy-sized hurricane and an accidental airplane crash at the site. However, when it came to acts of terror, the group had no direct way to determine the probability or evaluate the consequences. Much of the assessment concerning malevolent threats from within and without was based on expert opinion and speculation.
Biolab Director Ronald Corley boasts about the facility’s safety features, which include an earthquake-proof barrier around the Level 4 lab and a fortified perimeter fence that can withstand the impact of a speeding truck. Despite these prophylactic measures, I still worry about those who would see the facility as a uniquely attractive target for terrorism. Even if such an attack were unsuccessful, the impact of a failed attempt on this densely populated area could be significant, if not catastrophic.
When asked which floor of the multi-story structure contained the Level 4 lab, Corley refused to tell because of security reasons, a response that was itself rather telling in a different respect. It seems that Corley may be as worried about external threats as I am. As it happens, anyone who has toured the facility, including guests like me, already knows. It is hardly a well-kept secret.
No one can say with any degree of certainty whether “they,” the terrorists, will indeed ever come — whether launching Level 4 research activities will be irresistibly attractive to malevolent intruders or compromised insiders wishing to create havoc by releasing pathogens into a highly congested area. BU scientists may wish to experiment with dangerous biological agents, but they shouldn’t experiment with the safety and well-being of the millions who live or work in the surrounding area.
A research lab devoted to the most dangerous of viruses does not belong in Boston, or any urban area. Maybe they should move it to that isolated ballpark in Iowa – make it a “Field of Nightmares.” After all, the old-time ballplayers there are already dead.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University as well as a resident of the South End.