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News ::
MA. Joint Committee Hears Tetimony RE: Bioterror Lab, Many Hopeful Sanity Will Prevail
21 Jun 2005
State Representative Frank Smitzik was forced to make liberal use of his gavel chairing the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture public hearing on HR 1397 -An Act to Protect Public Health and the Environment from Toxic Biological Agents- earlier this month as an enthusiastic crowd of over 300 fans of the resolution repeatedly burst into applause when they felt their side had scored a good point.

Representative Gloria Fox, whose 7th Suffolk district includes the proposed site of labratory, is sponsoring the bill. In her opening comments describing HR 1397, which would provide comprehensive state regulation for BSL4 labs in Massachusetts, Fox acknowledged the large diverse crowd that had come out to show their support, “We have students, scientists, public health experts, and community activists as well as politicians here today,” Fox said.

BUMC has been working to open its laboratory in the South End of Boston, on the border of Roxbury for over two years. The NIAID grant funded project would be only the fifth level 4 laboratory operating in the United States.

According to a press release from Fox’s office, “presently there are no federal or state laws that regulate high security laboratories.”
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Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Hears A Lot Of Testimony RE: Bioterror Lab, Many Hopeful Sanity Will Prevail
State Representative Frank Smitzik was forced to make liberal use of his gavel last week chairing the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture public hearing on HR 1397 -An Act to Protect Public Health and the Environment from Toxic Biological Agents- as an enthusiastic crowd of over 300 fans of the resolution repeatedly burst into applause when they felt their side had scored a good point.

Representative Gloria Fox, whose 7th Suffolk district includes the proposed site of labratory, is sponsoring the bill. In her opening comments describing HR 1397, which would provide comprehensive state regulation for BSL4 labs in Massachusetts, Fox acknowledged the large diverse crowd that had come out to show their support, “We have students, scientists, public health experts, and community activists as well as politicians here today,” Fox said.

BUMC has been working to open its laboratory in the South End of Boston, on the border of Roxbury for over two years. The NIAID grant funded project would be only the fifth level 4 laboratory operating in the United States.

According to a press release from Fox’s office, “presently there are no federal or state laws that regulate high security laboratories.”

At the national level, there has been a significant amount of concern about the lack of federal oversight over a $6 billion-plus expansion of the US bio-defense program. In a recent article entitled ‘Biodefense Mania Grips the Nation’ Dr. Mae-Wan Ho wrote that, "Under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS), much defense-related research and development will be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act, and hence there will be little or no mandatory public disclosure. Originally, much of NIAID was to come under the DHS umbrella; this was blocked by Congressional Democrats, but could change during the current legislative session."

In his testimony before the committee Mark Klempner, the Provost for Research at BUMC, who is slated to co-direct research at the new laboratory, was adamant that Boston University would not conduct any classified research and that, “not one nickel has come from the Department of Homeland Security.”

Similar pronouncements in the course of seeking approval for other BSL4 labs have proved to be dubious. In his article Ho reported that, “Officials at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB), are quietly retreating from a pledge made in 2001 that their BSL4 facility will not conduct classified work.”

Here in Boston the prospect of constructing a laboratory that would conduct research on some of the most deadly biological agents known to humanity, including anthrax and tularemia, in a densely populated urban area, has met with stiff resistance from community activists, public health advocates, peace activists and others. Opponents have pointed out that the neighborhood immediately surrounding the proposed site of the lab is home to about 16,721 people per square mile, over four times as many people as the 3,478 per square mile who live in the immediate vicinity of the Center For Communicable Disease's BSL4 lab in Atlanta Georgia. They also charge that situating such a laboratory in an area that is predominantly Latino and African-American is an act of environmental racism.

Opponents of the bill maintain that passage would preclude the construction of Boston University’s laboratory and would, as Klempner said in his testimony, “have an enormous chilling effect on biological research in this state.”

Echoing opposing testimony from the hearing, an aide from Representative Fox’s office pointed out via e-mail that, “Cambridge has strict regulations on what type of biological agents can and cannot be studied. They have not suffered from these regulations, and in fact, are arguably the biotech capital of the world.”

According to records from the hearing, 115 people testified or wrote in favor of the bill and 45 testified or wrote against it.

David Ozonoff, a Professor of Environmental Health at Boston University testified that the risk of an outbreak resulting from an accident or an act of terrorism is particularly worrisome because, “unlike chemicals,” biological agents “reproduce themselves and travel in social patterns.”

Long time community activist Mel King, who attended the hearing, told Boston Indymedia he had come to support the legislation and he was, "opposed to the building of a bioterror lab anywhere." King was dismissive of BU’s P.R friendly humanitarian rationale for constructing the laboratory, that it would enable scientists to do life saving research into emerging infectious diseases. "There are places in the world where, if conditions were changed, the problems would not be there. I am particularly talking about poverty. We have the capability to deal with this and we don't need a bioterror lab, especially in an area that has the highest rate of morbidity of any area in the commonwealth," King said.

According to the Heart of the City Project at the Center for Urban and Regional Policy, “Roxbury has 9.8 hospitalizations per 1,000 people,” due to athsma, “versus the state average of 2.1 per 1,000 people.”

Fox’s bill enjoys significant support both among opponents of BU’s proposed lab and people who support the lab but believe that comprehensive state oversight the goings on at high security biological laboratories might be prudent. State Rep Byron Rushing, who falls into the later category, made light of earlier complaints from a consultant for the lab who, pointing to a foot high stack of papers on the table in front of him, had griped to the committee that BU had already gone through a rigorous approval process and complied with many regulations.

“All of those regulations would be in place if you built anything in the city of Boston,” Rushing said, “Any of you here, if you have done any development in your community, you have seen a stack of papers that high.”

Klempner maintained that if the bill was passed, “We could not proceed with doing any development until the Department of Public Health and Department of Environmental Protection create a new set of redundant regulations. It would end federal funding for the project.”

HR 1397 would provide regulations for the location, construction, operation, maintenance and security at BSL4 labs. It would require reports regarding current research to regulatory agencies and mandate regular inspection of laboratories. Additionally the bill would empower a community oversight board for any BSL4 laboratory built in the Commonwealth to help insure transparency of operations and research.

The bill would also place a moratorium on the construction of BSL4 laboratories until the structures are in place to carry out state level regulation of the laboratory.

It was unclear whether the effect of this legislation would, in fact, permanently short circuit BU’s plans to construct its laboratory, but it was clear that whether the project went forward or not was not the first thing on Fox’s mind during her testimony in front of the committee, “We are talking about regulations, “ she said, “because we want to save lives.”

This work is in the public domain