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Biodefense labs make bad neighbors, residents say

A series of state and federal lawsuits have blocked the opening of a lab complex in Boston, with neighbors nervous that toxins could get out. It's the first setback for such labs since Sept. 11.

May 17, 2009|Bob Drogin

BOSTON — Klare Allen, a once-homeless mother turned community activist, was stunned at a public meeting in 2002 when she and her friends learned that Boston University Medical Center officials planned to build a biological defense laboratory in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"We heard anthrax and Roxbury-South End," she recalled. "Then we heard Ebola. The last thing we heard was bubonic plague. We looked at each other and said, 'No way are they bringing that . . . into our community.' "

Seven years later, the $198-million lab complex stands completed between an apartment building and a flower market. But state and federal lawsuits by anxious residents, backed by skeptical scientists, have blocked the opening until late next year at the earliest.

The battle marks the first major setback in the vast growth since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks of labs authorized to research the world's most dangerous diseases. It also underscores a growing debate over the safety and security of such labs -- and whether so many are needed.

Federal officials and scientists say the labs will not secretly create germ weapons, which the United States renounced in 1969, but they are determined to stiffen America's defenses against pathogens that terrorists might use.

"There's nothing military about this operation," said Dr. Mark Klempner, a microbiologist who heads the Boston lab. "We are scientists who are interested in defending the nation, and the world, against infectious diseases."

Klempner said the facility would conduct no classified research for the government, and would bar any attempt to make an organism more virulent. "There's nothing nefarious or hidden about this," he said.

The high-containment lab is deep inside the building, a 13,000-square-foot vault behind foot-thick walls and blast-proof doors. Negative air pressure will keep germs inside if a leak occurs. Lab workers will wear fully enclosed, air-supplied moon suits.

But still opponents fear the accidental release of deadly toxins or organisms into a crowded urban area. They also warn that the supply of "hot" strains in a lab may attract terrorists, or push other nations into a biological arms race.

In theory, bioweapons are inexpensive to produce, difficult to detect and capable of killing millions. In practice, no terrorist group has launched a successful biological attack, and many U.S. experts believe the threat is vastly overstated.

"This lab is part of the biodefense enterprise," argued Dr. David Ozonoff, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. "It's not a public health enterprise. Its goal is to do research on biological weapons, even if it's defensive. I trust my colleagues. But no one knows how their research will be used."

Dan Goodenough, a biology professor at Harvard Medical School, worries that scientists may cut corners with safety rules. "Most of the time, it doesn't matter," he said. "In this case, it might."

A congressionally ordered, bipartisan study released in December provided ammunition to both sides.

It warned that the threat of bioterrorism, including the potential use of genetically modified viruses and germs, was rising. But it also noted that no single federal agency regulates the labs, and that their "rapid growth" had "created new safety and security risks."

Critics of the labs cite the 2001 anthrax attacks as proof that gates and guards cannot stop an insider who aims to do harm.

According to the FBI, a mentally unbalanced scientist at the U.S. Army's premier biodefense laboratory carried out the worst bioterrorist attack in U.S. history. The anthrax researcher, Dr. Bruce Ivins, committed suicide last year before he could be charged with mailing the spores that killed five people and sickened 17 others.

Less known is a record of recent accidents across the country.

In the most serious case, Texas A&M paid a $1-million federal fine last year after a citizens' group discovered that the university had failed to report that a researcher had been infected with the bacterium Brucella, which causes severe fever, and that others were exposed to Q fever, another infectious agent.

Most of the nation's high-security labs study diseases that are curable but could still be used in a terrorist attack, such as anthrax or tularemia. The federal government is unable to say how many such labs exist, however. A March report from the Congressional Research Service estimated the number to range from 386 to 630.

The Boston facility is in a smaller group categorized as "high-containment" labs. These handle only the most dangerous agents, such as Ebola and Marburg, for which no vaccines or treatments exist.

The United States operated five high-containment labs before 2001. It now has 15, and several have come under criticism.

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