After months of deliberations. a City Council vote and Massachusetts Superior Court ruling on Wednesday moved Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories closer toward full operation.
The Council voted 8-5 in favor of permitting Biosafety Level 4 research in Boston – which involves the testing and development of vaccines and treatments to combat infectious diseases – at NEIDL at the BU medical campus site in the South End. Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders also rejected a challenge by residents to a risk assessment by the National Institutes of Health that had found that NEIDL poses minimal risk to the community.
“This building has been completed for many years and the subsequent time has been involved with dealing with legal issues, risk assessments, and going through a process involving the regulatory authorities in the city and federal levels,” said BU spokesman Colin Riley. “The building is designed for BSL-4 research, the highest level of research standards, and this is very good news.”
Before operating regularly, Michelle Consalvo, assistant vice president for Government & Community Affairs at BU, said NEIDL must gain permission from the Boston Public Health Commission to begin research on life-threatening infectious diseases classified as BSL-4, such as Ebola.
City Councilor Charles Yancey, author of the ordinance to prohibit potentially dangerous BSL-4 research in Boston, voted against permitting BSL-4 research in Boston. He said he was disappointed by the vote and that NEIDL posed potential risks to residents.
“The benefits will be minimal to the city of Boston and the risks will be severe,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars went into that building, but if there is one mechanical failure people could be exposed without ever knowing it… Many residents would be placed in quarantine that would have to be enforced by the U.S. military. It’s serious stuff.”
Yancey said the City Council vote on BSL-4 research was not aptly advertised to the public, and discussions about NEIDL have failed to address ways the city would respond to malfunctions at the lab.
“During budget hearings, I asked the police commissioner what he would do if one of the pathogens were released, and he told us he would order officers to stay out of the facility,” he said. “Of course the instinct of first responders is to rush into danger to rescue others… but they don’t have cures for these diseases.”
Several university officials, including BU’s Associate Provost for Research, Gloria Waters, have repeatedly insisted that NEIDL is safe and secure, and champion NEIDL as a scientific and economic boon to Boston.
At a City Council hearing on April 16, Waters defended NEIDL as crucial to sending a message to the scientific community that Boston is committed to scientific advancements and innovative research. She also said NEIDL was expected to bring $45 million in federal funding to the city.
In a 19-page ruling released Wednesday regarding residents’ concern over the risk assessment by the NIH, Sanders wrote that the NEIDL has complied with various environmental regulations and denied the plaintiff’s challenge to the Supplementary Final Environmental Impact Report.
“[The] Plaintiff’s primary concern is that the SFEIR does not adequately describe the risks of the NEIDL and instead relies on questionable assumptions and incomplete data,” the ruling stated. “In support of this position, they make several arguments, none of them persuasive.”
Despite the potential risks, Riley said the decisions concerning NEIDL reflect BU and Boston’s commitment to leading in scientific research and medical innovation.
“Boston is recognized as a medical mecca where science breaking, innovation, research and medical service is the highest,” he said. “The research conducted will be able to ideally find vaccines and treatments so that future generations are not faced with these threats.”