BOSTON, Jan. 21 -- The revelation this week that a laboratory slip-up led three Boston University scientists to become infected with tularemia, a flulike disease sometimes referred to as "rabbit fever," has fueled criticism of a plan to build a state-of-the-art research lab to study some of the world's most lethal germs in Boston's South End.
The project, which is expected to bring more than $1.6 billion in grants and other funding to the city, has generated intense community opposition in the two years since Boston Medical Center began trying to persuade the federal government to site the project here.
Slated for groundbreaking later this year, it would be one of just a handful of full-scale Bio-safety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories in the country -- a classification that would permit research on diseases such as anthrax, Ebola and the plague. The lab would be located in a more densely populated neighborhood than the others, including those in San Antonio, Atlanta and Frederick, Md.
The Boston Globe reported Wednesday that two researchers became sick in May with a mysterious illness that was later diagnosed as tularemia and that a third case emerged in September. The incidents occurred when the scientists worked with what they believed to be a safe form of the disease. They have since recovered.
The university, which has long insisted that exhaustive security procedures and technology would make the laboratory safe, did not disclose the contaminations until it was questioned by the newspaper, the Globe reported.
Local leaders, including some members of Boston's City Council who have long opposed the project on safety grounds, said the reports lent credibility to their concerns.
"They say that type of tularemia is not contagious from person to person, and that is why they didn't tell us, but what I am afraid of is that will happen with anthrax or smallpox, or something much worse," said Rose Aruda, a community organizer who lives several blocks from the large parking lot where the facility would be built.
In an attempt to delay final approval of the project, she and several other neighborhood residents filed a lawsuit Jan. 12 accusing the university of underestimating the potential "worst-case" scenario listed on its environmental impact forms.
The BSL-4 lab would join a network of new facilities, many developed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes and the subsequent anthrax mailings, that investigate agents that could be used in a biological terrorist attack.
"It will be critically important as a safe and secure place to work and do research so we can combat bioterrorism," said Rona Hirschberg, a senior program officer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whose budget for combating bioterrorism has soared in recent years.
For Boston, whose economy is increasingly focused on its first-class universities, the BSL-4 laboratory, which will study emerging infectious diseases, is seen as solidifying its status as a research and biotechnology capital.
"This is the universal center of biotechnology research as it is, and therefore it makes sense to have a federal center of that research here," said Mark Maloney, who heads the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which has estimated the project would bring in 1,300 construction jobs and 650 ongoing positions.
With the mandated use of protective suits, air that is doubly or triply filtered, and backup systems to ensure electricity during blackouts, it is highly unlikely that scientists working in the BSL-4 lab would be contaminated, said Mark S. Klempner, an assistant provost at Boston University, who will be the lead researcher at the new facility.
Scheduled to open at the end of 2007 or the start of 2008, it would be built for about $200 million next to a highway, university buildings and a residential neighborhood. To protect against a possible terrorist attack from ground level, plans call for it to be set back 150 feet from any roads with public access.
"We maintain that no matter where these labs are put, they are safe to the population, and that is their history," Klempner said. "There has never been any kind of community or environmental damage from them. And even looking at worst case, there is no more risk of contamination to the surrounding population than if it was out in the middle of a cornfield."
While accidents at such facilities are rare, they are not unprecedented. At Fort Detrick, a BSL-4 facility in Frederick, a researcher accidentally pricked herself last February with a needle containing the Ebola virus. She was quarantined for three weeks and did not contract the disease.
The Boston project has enjoyed widespread political support at the city and state levels, but at least one longtime backer said the tularemia contaminations gave him pause.
"I can absolutely see why there is concern. I am in the midst of trying to determine who the regulatory authorities are and what was supposed to be done," said U.S. Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D), who represents Boston's South End and is a longtime supporter of the project. "I am trying to avoid reacting emotionally, but my biggest concern is that it took so long to report to the public. This incident certainly raises questions about the project that I did not have before."