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MIT Technology Review

What’s the Matter with the Biolab?

The United States has poured billions into biosafety laboratories, one of the largest cash infusions for public health in decades. But the public isn’t sold on the labs, and that may derail the push for more cutting-edge science.

February 8, 2005

Boston University Medical Center was on a roll. Armed with a fat, $120-million federal grant to build a seven-story germ laboratory on its urban campus, the school had overcome community opposition and was one approval away from starting construction on the high-security lab. That meant access to plentiful grant monies in the emerging field of biodefense.

Then came the accident.

Pressed by media reports, university officials admitted in early January that they had failed to report the 2004 accident that caused three lab workers to be sickened by tularemia, the virus better known as rabbit fever, which produces flu-like symptoms and is treatable with antibiotics.

The gaffe posed no imminent public danger since the virus isn’t spread from person to person, and people who have tularemia do not need to be isolated, according to the web site for the Center for Disease Control.

However, the public perception that the university misled the community about the dangers of lab practices could fuel a wider distrust of scientists and jeopardize public support for research in areas such as stem cells or nanotechnology, says Mark Frankel, director of the scientific freedom, responsibility and law program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“The bottom line is that scientists need to develop relationships of trust with the communities in which they work, and the events in Boston are counterproductive to doing that,” says Frankel.

Perhaps more disconcerting for science policymakers is that the disclosure led to a new round of questions over whether the United States is creating an overabundance of research centers for studying potentially lethal viruses.

The nation’s network of biosafety laboratories has been part of the public discourse about science since the terrorist attacks of 2001. The labs study a variety of infectious agents, from influenza and SARS to rare viruses found in the remote corners of the globe.

Biosafety levels one and two labs study agents of low or moderate-risk. The pathogens studied in level three labs can be transmitted through the air and cause potentially lethal infection.

Dozens of U.S. research centers that study viruses that fall into the first three categories, but only four labs were constructed with the special fortifications necessary to handle the lethal pathogens that fall into level four, the highest risk category known as BSL-4.

These high-containment labs study biological agents for which there is no known vaccine or drug therapy. In addition to armed security, the BSL-4 labs conduct researching using a variety of protective measures and decontamination processes that include airlocks, fumigation chambers, disinfectant “dunk tanks” and wastewater treatment systems. A high-efficiency particulate air system filters the air.

The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 let loose a flood of dollars to change the research landscape and dramatically expand the number of Level-4 labs. Federal funding for civilian biodefense research rose from $414 million in 2001 to $5.5 billion in 2004, according to the Biosecurity Center of the University of Pittsburgh.

Assigned to improve U.S. biodefense research, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), an arm of the National Institutes of Health, has funded nine regional biocontainment labs and, more controversially, two national biolabs outfitted with BSL-4 facilities. One is the Boston University lab; the other is at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, a growing center of bioterrorism research. NIAID awarded each university a one-time grant of $120 million to build the centers.

Researchers who support the biolab build-out say the new centers will lead to the development of vaccines and drug therapies to counter not just bioterrorism but other hazardous pathogens as well. Yet the amount of high-containment space that’s needed is subject to debate..

NIAID plans to fund the creation of four more BSL-4 labs. Stephen Morse, director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness at Columbia University, agrees that the current inventory of BSL-4 space limits researchers’ work.

“At this point we’re in very short supply, dangerously so,” Morse says.

Yet Morse, like others, is troubled by the lack of hard numbers assessing how much space needs to be added.

“Because there’s a lag in planning and in construction, over-building is a possibility,” Morse says.

Vocal biolab critic Richard Ebright is skeptical of the public-health payoff that the BSL-4 lab supporters envision. Ebright, a Rutgers University chemistry professor and director of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology in Piscataway, N.J., points out that the five biological agents that require BSL-4 level containment – hemorrhagic fevers, tick-borne encephalitis, Hendra virus, Hanta virus, and simian herpes – pose no threat to the U.S. population.

“You don’t fund influenza by the spinoffs of tularemia research,” says Ebright. “You fund it with influenza research.”

Observers say that while Boston University’s reporting breach is unlikely to alter the course of the biolabs initiative, it is a black eye for the scientific community, especially in Boston where the proposed lab’s prospective neighbors have loudly voiced their fears that officials will withhold details of the research being conducted. The terms of the Bioterrorism Act exempt the BSL-4 labs from the Freedom of Information Act, which allows the release of records.

Accidents are an inherent part of research, says Gigi Kwik Gronvall, an assistant professor of medicine at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a fellow at the school’s Center for Biosecurity.

“The problem is you have to anticipate them and have programs in place to respond. I don’t believe there’s adequate tracking of these types of accidents,” Gronvall says.

In the end, the controversy over the BU incident may prove to be a positive force for more open discussion.

“If there’s any good to come from this, maybe we’ll see an end to those wild [safety] claims from lab proponents, and we can have a more grounded and serious discussion about the risks,” says Edward Hammond, U.S. director for the Sunshine Project, a biolab watchdog organization in Austin.