A Massachusetts federal court ruled Tuesday approving the National Institutes of Health’s risk assessment of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories biolab at Boston University.
The U.S. District Court of Massachusetts ruled that, despite community concerns, the Final Supplementary Risk Assessment for the biolab accurately reported the likelihood of an accident that might result in public infection is extremely low.
“After hearing and a review of the record, the Court finds that the NIH has met its obligation under NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] to take a hard look at the environmental consequences of its decision to build the biolab in Boston,” the official decision stated.
The decision is an important step for the biolab as it helps clear the way for Level 3 research, said NEIDL spokeswoman Ellen Berlin. NEIDL officials have applied to conduct Level 3 research in the biolab and are currently awaiting a decision from the Boston Public Health Commission.
“It [the decision] means we are going to go forward with Level 3 research in pursuing the approval of the Boston Public Health Commission to transfer the existing Level 3 research to the NEIDL,” Berlin said.
The case, filed by four residents who live near the biolab, was intended to determine whether the risk assessment was adequate and whether BU’s medical campus was an appropriate site for the biolab, Berlin said.
NEIDL hopes to apply to conduct Level 4 research depending on the resolution of a similar case at the state level, Berlin said. A hearing for the case is scheduled for Dec. 11.
The lab, if approved for biosafety Level 4, will conduct research on diseases such as SARS, Ebola, 1918 H1N1 influenza, pneumonic plague and anthrax.
“In the state court case, the plaintiffs have challenged the certificate issued by the Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs approving the Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Report submitted by BU,” she said.
NEIDL safety practices ensure that researchers are protected and that the biolab is accessible to only authorized personnel, Berlin said.
“There are many systems, both safety systems in the laboratories and security systems, that ensure that research at all levels is done safely,” Berlin said. “… At every biosafety level, different pathogens are studied, and there are different precautions taken because the higher the levels, the more you need personal protections and laboratory protections.”
Valeda Britton, executive director of communications for BUMC, said the biolab looks forward to moving ahead in Level 3 and Level 4 research.
“It is important for Level 4 research to be pursued because we’re really talking about finding treatments, vaccines and diagnostics for those emerging and reemerging diseases,” Britton said.
Klare Allen, lead plaintiff of the cases at the state and federal level, said the biolab is unnecessary and puts the Boston community in danger.
“We don’t know about it [the research being performed at the lab],” she said. “We don’t know how to deal with it. We can’t handle it. This is Boston’s first time doing this type of research.”
Biolab personnel do not have the expertise or the security systems in place to safely research infectious diseases, Allen said.
“The risks are pretty much apparent,” she said. “We’re talking about airborne, infectious, contagious diseases we won’t be able to smell touch or anything else if there’s a release.”
Allen’s attorney Mina Makarious of Anderson and Kreiger, L.L.P., said the case at the state level involves the biolab’s compliance under Massachusetts environmental policies.
“There’s different standards in each court,” he said. “We’re weighing our options on how to move forward.”