By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007
An expert panel of the nation's premier science advisory organization yesterday gave a failing grade to a federal risk analysis used to justify construction of a controversial high-security bioterror laboratory in inner-city Boston.
The report, by the National Research Council of the National Academies, is a significant victory for community activists and others who have opposed construction of the $200 million "biosafety level 4" laboratory, designed to study the world's most dangerous diseases.
It bluntly declares that the science behind the risk analysis -- conducted by the National Institutes of Health, which is funding most of the project -- "is not sound and credible."
"On a pass-fail basis . . . it would have failed," said Gary Smith, chief of public health at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine and a member of the committee that conducted the review at the request of the state of Massachusetts.
"If it were a submitted article for a scientific journal, we would have rejected it," committee member Gigi Kwik Gronvall of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for Biosecurity said.
Biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) labs are designed to do studies of biological agents that cause anthrax, smallpox, Ebola and other highly virulent or contagious ailments for which no vaccine or therapy is available. Four such labs are under construction with NIH funding -- all scheduled to be largely complete by next year -- as part of a plan to boost biosecurity research.
The Boston lab, 70 percent complete, is being built in conjunction with Boston University and the Boston Medical Center on the border of the city's South End and its impoverished Roxbury district. Construction is continuing while state and federal lawsuits wend their way through the courts. Federal officials have said that if they lose in court, the facility will be used for experiments on less dangerous microbes.
Yesterday's 28-page report focused on just one aspect of the government's case for the Boston lab: a "Draft Supplementary Risk Assessment and Site Suitability Analysis" written by NIH. Once finalized, that document is to supplement the government's initial Environmental Impact Report, which the Superior Court of Massachusetts declared inadequate in July 2006.
Technically, yesterday's report is but one of many "public comments" that the NIH will consider as it finalizes its risk analysis. Even that analysis will be but one part of the government's overall case that the lab will be safe.
The NRC report "should not be viewed as statements about the risks of proposed biocontainment facilities in Boston, or in cities more generally," the report says. "The Committee acknowledges the need for biocontainment laboratories in the United States, including BSL-4 laboratories, and recognizes that BSL-4 facilities are being operated in other major urban areas."
In a brief statement, NIH officials promised to "consider the comments along with all others."
Activists and their lawyers were less restrained.
"Oh, my God, I'm just so happy," said Klare Allen, a community organizer who has helped lead the legal battle. "The NRC pretty much confirmed everything we've been saying for the last five years."
Among other things, the report criticized the way the NIH compared the potential impact of an accidental microbial release on the high-density Roxbury neighborhood vs. a similar release in a more rural setting. NIH chose to base that analysis on the virus that causes Rift Valley fever, which is spread by mosquitoes and can live in cows.
By choosing that disease instead of one that spreads without cows, the report said, the results made a rural setting for the lab seem more dangerous than the urban site.
Moreover, the NRC said, the analysis did not examine how diseases released by the lab might particularly harm the already unhealthy population in Roxbury, which is designated an "environmental justice" zone and so is entitled to legal protection from actions that might worsen its already poor public health status.
Ellen Berlin, director of corporate communications at Boston University, said it was important that the lab be situated close to the university's medical research campus. "Kind of lost in all this is how important it is to study and find treatments and cures for infectious diseases," Berlin said, adding that "the research can and will be done safely."
The other three NIH BSL-4 labs under construction, none of which faces legal challenges, are at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston; Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont.; and Fort Detrick. Other agencies operate at least five other such labs.