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
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
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
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
"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
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."
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