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Commentary :: Social Welfare
Latest on BU Bio-Terror Lab
14 Apr 2005
The truth about the pro-lab Op-Ed in the April 12, 2005, Boston Globe

Originally distibuted as an e-mail by ACE: Alternatives For Community and Environment

You may have read the Op-Ed in the April 12, 2005, Boston Globe in which Dr. Jean Patterson writes in favor of the lab. What the Op-Ed fails to note is that the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, where Dr. Patterson heads the Department of Virology and Biomedical Research, is the owner and operator of the BSL4 lab in San Antonio and so of course Dr. Patterson has a self-interest in assuring everyone that BSL4 labs are safe and needed. Also she is plain wrong to write that city, state, and federal officials will be keeping an eye on everything that goes on in the lab. There is no federal regulatory program for such labs -- only laboratory self-policing through an Institutional Biosafety Committee made up of members appointed by BU. There is no state or city regulatory program. In fact, the Boston Public Healthy Commission report on the tularemia infections at BU recommends the creation of multi-level regulatory programs for such labs.Until there are such regulatory programs no one should feel comfortable having a BSL4 lab in Boston. Remember, the BU lab will be the first and only BSL4 lab in a densely populated urban neighborhood anywhere in the U.S.
Here is a letter to the Boston Globe from the Council for Responsible Genetics (thanks to CRG for letting us use the letter, which the Globe has not printed): Dear Editor, I agree with Patterson that we would all like to do our best to protect ourselves from infectious diseases and make the world a more peaceful place to live in. Beyond that I disagree with numerous points that she makes. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was ratified by 147 countries, including the US, but the current administration has derailed efforts to create a BWC protocol for enforcement and verification by rejecting international monitoring and inspections, a decision that has angered our closest allies, and can lead to a global arms race. The only way one can guarantee safety from biological weapons is by getting back on track with the BWC. We can do this by being fully transparent about all research on biological weapons agents, something that cannot be guaranteed by Boston University (BU) or by any of the other labs that carry out such research under Homeland Security. Furthermore, in the case of biological weapons agents, there is no practical difference between defensive and offensive research; we can only rely on the stated aim. Patterson says that BU would be transparent about its research and guarantee safety. I would strongly disagree based on the manner in which BU handled the tularemia infections of lab workers (in 2004) that was revealed under pressure from the Boston Globe (in Jan 2005) only after BU obtained clearance for the proposed lab from the federal and state governments and the city's zoning commission. If BU cannot be trusted to run a Biosafety Level-2 lab ­ where the security and safety requirements are very low ­ how can people trust its ability to be transparent and responsible while operating a higher security lab? There is no comprehensive reporting requirement for accidents that take place in any Biosafety Level-3 or 4 lab, so I don't know how Patterson can confidently state that there have been none. There have been many accidents in Biosafety Level-3 labs, and incidents of missing samples from the Level-4 section of Fort Detrick (for a list of accidents see http:/ /www.gene- watch.org/bubiodefense/pages/accidents.html). Let us not forget that the engineers and scientists at Three Mile Island, the Bhopal Union Carbide factory, and the Columbia Shuttle were once confident about the safety of their respective enterprises and probably made equally glib guarantees. Sujatha Byravan, PhD. Executive Director, Council for Responsible Genetics

Here is another letter that the Globe has not published: To the Editor: Boston should think twice before being lulled into accepting BU's bioterror lab in the heart of the densely-populated Roxbury/South End neighborhood. In her Op-ed piece yesterday, Jean L. Patterson says: "there has never been a single incident in which a pathogen has been released into the environment" * Wrong! There have been over 15 accidental releases, infections of technicians or security breaches at high-security biocontainment facilities since 2001 alone. (Documented by the Council for Responsible Genetics) The anthrax used in the scare after 9/11 is widely assumed by scientists to come from one of the few other BSL4 labs in existence. Jean L Patterson says that this bioterror lab will help "rectify" the problem of emerging infectious diseases by helping to find cures. * Why, then, did over 750 renowned scientists recently sign a letter objecting to the fact that nearly 40% of the NIH research budget on infectious diseases going to defense research? This is same amount spent on all AIDS research and more than is spent researching cures for ALL other infectious diseases. Patterson claims, "There will be ample opportunity for the people of Boston to watch over the work that goes on in their midst" * Wrong again. There are currently NO Federal or State regulations governing Biotech laboratories. There are only unenforceable and failing guidelines. From nuclear power plants to restaurants we regulate everything else that might endanger public health. How, then, can we permit such a lab in the heart of Boston without even a law to regulate it? Take BU's word for it? Their current labs have had over 80 environmental violations since 2001, including mercury and other toxic substances dumped into the city's sewer system.- Ebola anyone? State Representative Gloria Fox has just submitted groundbreaking legislation, which will regulate Biolabs doing potentially dangerous research in Massachusetts. There are over 30 co- sponsors to the bill, HB #1397. This legislation merely takes most of BU's promises and turns them into law. In fact, the Boston Public Health Commission report on the tularemia infections at BU recommends the need for multi level regulatory programs for such labs. Until there are such programs there should not be a BSL4 lab in Boston. -- Eve Lyman Director Boston Mobilization 971 Commonwealth Ave #20 Boston, MA, 02215 617.782.2313 www.bostonmobilization.org

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