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News :: War and Militarism
17 Aug 2008
South End News Aug14,2008 [L.Rodriguez]
Boston University Medical Center’s plans to conduct safety and operations training at the controversial BioLab in February 2009
BU plans BioLab safety drills
by Linda Rodriguez
managing editor
Thursday Aug 14, 2008

Boston University Medical Center’s plans to conduct safety and operations training at the controversial BioLab in February 2009 have already caused consternation among opponents of the lab, who say that BU’s plans don’t provide for enough input from the community.

BUMC announced Aug. 11 that public safety, health and operations training at the BioLab facility, officially known as the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL) would commence next year, pending an occupancy permit from the city for the nearly complete building. The building, situated on a barren stretch of parking lot on Albany Street, will be complete by October of this year, however, the use of the building’s laboratory facilities to study viruses such as Ebola, Marburg and other hemorrhagic fevers will not be permitted until after several legal and regulatory issues are resolved. A federal court order requires that the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the agency funding the BioLab’s construction, conduct a supplemental risk assessment of the BioLab after the first was deemed insufficient. According to court documents filed earlier this year, that assessment is not likely to be completed until April 2009; a period of public comment will follow.

BUMC spokeswoman Ellen Berlin on Tuesday described the training "as a full-scale dress rehearsal," though none of the potentially lethal viruses to be studied at the lab will be used in the training. "They would take an experiment that’s already been published in the literature and start at the beginning and perform every step of the experiment to test all of the procedures," Berlin explained, adding that "every step" also refers to the transportation of the pathogen to the building and then inside the building. "The purpose is to test the policies and the procedures."

Additionally, the training will also cover possible outbreak scenarios - a broken test tube or an infected researcher, for instance - and will involve the city’s first responders, including the Fire Department and EMS, as well as the Boston Public Health Commission. The training will focus on the experiments around the biosafety level 4 pathogens - the hemorrhagic fevers and truly dangerous viruses - but may also examine biosafety level 3 viruses, which are also expected to be studied at the lab. Berlin did not know how long the training would go on at the lab.

"I think it’s a really unique opportunity for Boston University and for our responders and others in the city to be able to have this training at this time, that from what we can tell, it’s among the most comprehensive training of its kind to be conducted in this kind of lab," Berlin said.
Opponents of the BioLab, however, say that BUMC’s current safety training proposal does not include enough outreach to or involvement from the community. They also say it’s too early to begin these kinds of safety procedures, given the fact that no research of any kind will be allowed to take place in the lab until all legal and regulatory processes are complete, which could be as late as 2010.

"This exercise that they’ve planned for February may be premature, that’s the first problem," said Laura Maslow Armand, an attorney with the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, which represents local residents in a federal lawsuit against the BioLab. "And the second is, is it a discussion with first responders or is a lecture to them, sort of a dog and pony show? ... It’s not clear that there’s going to be an opportunity for community dialogue."

Maslow Armand added that a lack of community input has dogged the project since the NIH awarded Boston University the initial $128 million grant to build the facility (the grant has grown to $148 million to offset the cost of the now $198 million project). "That has been the major absence in Boston University’s approach to constructing this facility in a congested minority neighborhood," she said.

According to the press release issued by BUMC, officials on the project will be reaching out to the community to explain the training through the existing Community Liaison Committee, a six-member panel of local citizens formed in June 2006 to be a link between BUMC and the community. Berlin said the BUMC is still working out the details of community involvement in the training and is inviting individuals to visit the lab’s website and post comments on how they would like to be involved.

"We’ll be actively engaging the community so we can get their input on how they can be involved," said Berlin, adding that BUMC also made its intentions to hold this kind of training known six months in advance in order to allow for time to plan community involvement.

Regarding whether the planned training is premature, Berlin said, "I have never heard of anybody who said they’ve had too much training. Training is a very, very important component in this project and I’m not sure there’s such a thing as too much training."

Linda Rodriguez can be reached at lrodriguez (at)
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