City, News

Biolab concerns

In the home stretch of Boston University’s six-year project to build a high security disease research lab on its medical campus, biolab opponents have ramped up their opposition to the plan.

A group of city councilors presented a docket two weeks ago that would ban level-4 research, which permits using all but the deadliest pathogens, in Boston. Former biolab supporter Boston City Councilor At-Large Michael Flaherty along with City Councilor-At-Large Sam Yoon and City Councilors Chuck Turner and Charles Yancey co-sponsored the docket, and presented it to the Boston City Council Committee on Government Operations

The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, currently under construction at the BU Medical Campus in the South End, will conduct research on highly infectious and deadly pathogens deemed Biosafety level-4 research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These pathogens include anthrax, bubonic plague and Ebola.

Flaherty had said in the past that the biolab would bring jobs to Boston and propel the city to the forefront of biotechnology research with little risk to the city’s residents, but he has since changed his mind.

After witnessing New Orleans’ response to Hurricane Katrina and Boston’s failure to respond during a snowstorm last winter, however, Flaherty said he began to rethink his position. He worries about the city’s readiness in case of a biolab disaster.

‘I sat down with professors, scientists, community activists and lawyers, and they all told me our area is not prepared to handle an emergency from this lab,’ Flaherty said.

Yancey, a docket co-sponsor with Flaherty, said he hopes other legislators will follow Flaherty’s footsteps, and reconsider their positions on the biolab.

‘I’m just asking my colleagues to vote their conscience and look at the facts,’ he said. ‘If they feel the city is ready to handle an emergency, they should vote against our docket, and if they don’t, they should vote for it.’

Safety Net community organizer Klare Allen said Flaherty’s change of position and involvement with the proposed docket are encouraging signs. Safety Net, an anti-biolab group, is working with other groups nationwide to push for a national moratorium on level-4 research.

Anti-biolab groups will continue to educate public officials about the risks associated with the Boston biolab, Allen said. ‘ ‘ ‘

Associate Director of the Massachusetts Nursing Association Mary Crotty said Flaherty’s change of mind represents a tipping point in the fight against the biolab. MNA members do not think Boston has sufficient facilities or personnel to handle a widespread pathogen leak, Crotty said.

Crotty said biolab opponents will find difficulty convincing Mayor Thomas Menino that the lab is neither safe nor beneficial to the city.

‘I don’t think Menino changes his mind whether he has information or not,’ Crotty said.

Opponents gained an ally within the state government on Election Day when Sonia Chang-Diaz, who had publicly condemned the biolab, defeated biolab supporter Dianne Wilkerson for State Senate. Biolab opponents also declared a small victory when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the NIH review was not acceptable and mandated the formation of an independent Blue Ribbon Panel to assess the situation.

BU spokesman Colin Riley referred all questions to Medical Campus officials. Biolab officials had not responded to email requests by press time.

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