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Biolab scheduled to begin operating in February

NEIDL Director Dr. John Murphy describes the sterilization process at Boston University's BioLab.

Inside Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, the facility is equipped with iris scanners, airtight decontamination showers and space suits, all designed to ensure the utmost safety and security within the controversial building.

These devices are a sample of several precautions taken within the 193,000-square foot, seven-story facility that houses BU’s newest Biosafety Level-2 and Level-3 laboratories as well as the much debated Biosafety Level-4 lab, the first of its kind in Boston.

Associate Director Ronald Corley said the facility’s BSL-2 laboratory is set to begin operating in February once it receives approval to begin. No research has been conducted within the facility yet.

The safety and security measures within the building are guarding nothing but air while BU awaits approval to begin operating the BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs, Corley said to The Daily Free Press during a private tour of the building.

“So we have a very expensive office building,” he joked.

Staff has begun training within the biolab in preparation of opening. The facility has a simulator in which they practice proper procedures for BSL-2 and BSL-3 laboratories before they begin simulator training for BSL-4. Those researchers must complete the training in the BSL-4 simulator before they can enter a BSL-4 lab, Corley said.

“This training simulator is the only one of it’s kind in the nation,” said John Murphy, NEIDL’s interim director.

The facility has received requests from BSL-4 researchers outside of BU to train in the simulator, Murphy said.

“The hallmark of working in level-4 is drill, drill, drill, drill, drill,” Murphy said.

“We make people do at least five entries and exits in this simulator before we take them up to a laboratory,” Corley said.

To access the laboratories themselves, researches must pass through a series of security measures.

To take the elevators to the laboratory floors, research staff must swipe a card while in the elevator car for access to the intended floor. When exiting the elevator, researchers pass an iris scanner proving they have clearance to the laboratories on that floor before they can enter.

The different labs have different safeguards based on their level. Due to the lethal pathogens that will be housed and handled in the BSL-4 lab, such as the plague and Ebola, it has the most rigorous safety precautions.

The floor housing the entire BSL-4 lab is encased in airtight 12-inch thick concrete walls, a 14-inch concrete ceiling and a 16-inch concrete floor.

The building rests on special beams that ensure stability even in the event of an earthquake.

“This is a submarine in a bank vault,” Murphy said.
Street clothes are forbidden in the areas where pathogens are used, so an anteroom is designated for changing.

“You come in here and you strip. You can wear your glasses and that’s pretty much it,” Corley said.

After removing outside apparel, researchers enter an airtight chamber where they put on scrubs and a spacesuit. Researchers are required to enter a special shower while wearing the suit before they enter the lab itself. As researchers enter and exit a room, they must pass through a door that will not open until the previous door has been shut.

The air inside the labs is circulated through two high-efficiency particulate air filters and is never allowed to escape from the research area it’s in, Corley said.

When exiting the labs, researchers enter showers where they receive a decontamination shower while still wearing their spacesuits. They remove their suits and scrubs in the next room before taking a personal shower. They enter another room where they can return to their personal clothes and exit the facility.

Beyond personal decontamination, the lab is also purified with vaporized hydrogen peroxide or formaldehyde, which is pumped directly into the facility.

“The reality is that if these labs are properly maintained you could walk into them in your street clothes,” Corley said.

Corley said he is also aware of and seeks to ease community concerns.

“I want to emphasize that none of the research that is done here can be secret,” he said.

“All biosafety is really about keeping the worker safe,” Corley said. “If you keep the worker safe, you’ve kept the community safe.”

4 Responses for “Biolab scheduled to begin operating in February”

  1. Chelsea says:

    It’s awfully convenient that this is located in a poorer neighborhood. Why couldn’t we put it in Brookline or Newton?

    This has Tuskegee, Guatemala, and tainted blood products all over it.

  2. Mike says:

    There are luxury apartments directly across Albany Street from the N.E.I.D.L. that are listed for between $1850 & $2550/mo. and BU Medical School buildings within a stone’s throw of the lab. All of these people will be equally, if not more severely, affected by anything that could potentially happen at the lab so the idea that the N.E.I.D.L. is in the middle of Ciudad Juarez. Is it some kind of crazy conspiracy that it happens, also, to be right next to BU’s other research/medical buildings? Seems like a logical place for it to me.

    • Craig says:

      I agree that this lab is located pretty much between two very diverse demographics, but I’m not sure I would call it “logical.”

      If you were going to build a facility that houses transmittable diseases, one would think that you would *not* put it in a dense population area – like, um, Boston. I’m not trying to be NIMBY about this, but there are likely better places to put it. How about on one of the harbor islands? This has already been done for other facilities similar in nature to this one (Plum Island).

  3. Southender says:

    Just for the record, the average price for a condo or single family home price in the South End is more than the average condo or single family house price in Brookline and Newton. For example, at Trulia, the median price for a South End condo is given as $658K vs. only $500K in Brookline.

    The BU Biolab was placed in the South End for the simple reason that there is a huge amount of medical research already being done by BU at their campus around Albany and Harrison streets.

    There are a number of good reasons to be against the BU Biolab in the South End. However, using the “race card” is not one of them.

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