Biolab follies

How did BU’s research facility go from slam dunk to almost sunk?

By: ADAM REILLY The Phoenix

    In the beginning — way back in the fall of 2003, when the “War on Terror” was still young — the notion that anything could derail the Boston University (BU) biolab seemed absurd. The federal government supported the research facility, obviously, since the National Institutes of Health (NIH) picked Boston University Medical Center (along with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston) over five other sites that wanted to build their own National Biocontainment Laboratories. The project also had widespread political support, both from the Democratic establishment (Boston mayor Tom Menino, Congressman Mike Capuano, Senator Ted Kennedy) and from then–Republican governor Mitt Romney.

Money was one big draw. According to early estimates, the biolab, officially dubbed the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, would inject $1.7 billion into Boston’s economy over 20 years and create roughly 2000 new jobs (two-thirds in construction, one-third permanent). But so, too, was the prospect of cementing Massachusetts’s status as a biotech Mecca — and a broader sense that landing the biolab would boost the state’s prestige. After all, only a select few facilities in the country do Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) research, which involves hands-on study of virulent, deadly diseases such as Ebola and Marburg hemorrhagic fever. And while the majority of the biolab’s space would be used for non-BSL-4 work, that was clearly the sexiest, most significant part of the project. As Kennedy said when the biolab’s founding, $128-million federal grant was announced: “Boston now is situated to be the world’s center in a battle against biological warfare.”

True, there was some opposition: neighborhood activists, a few lower-level politicians, the occasional fretful academic. The biolab was dangerous and didn’t belong in a dense urban area, they argued. And if it were proposed in a whiter, more affluent neighborhood — Wellesley, West Roxbury, the Back Bay — it wouldn’t stand a chance. But their prospects looked exceedingly dim, largely because plenty of scientists promised, from the get-go, that the biolab would be totally safe.

Those days are gone. Throughout the past few years, and particularly during the past 12 months, the biolab’s backers have suffered a string of setbacks: legal, diplomatic, political. Boston University Medical Center (BUMC) may still end up hosting a BSL-4 facility, but this is hardly the sure thing it once was. In fact, given the current momentum of the debate, the smart money might actually be on the biolab not coming to fruition, at least as it was originally conceived.

So what went wrong, exactly? Or, for those who see things differently: what went right?

Scathing reviews
Albany Street isn’t much of a draw, either for tourists or for locals. Unless you’re headed to BUMC, or picking up some flowers at the Boston Flower Exchange, there’s not much reason to visit. There’s minimal evidence there of the gentrification taking place just to the north, in the boutique-ified part of the South End. But if, for whatever reason, you did happen to walk past the biolab construction site, you’d conclude that everything is going swimmingly. The building itself — a seven-story, 192,000-square-foot, cream-colored behemoth crowned with a striking wall of curved glass — is nearly done. Viewed from the south or west, it’s already a striking, reassuringly solid-looking sentinel at Boston proper’s southernmost edge.

The irony is this: as the biolab has moved toward physical completion, the prospects of it actually conducting BSL-4 research — or even BSL-3 work, which involves fairly spooky subjects such as anthrax and the pneumonic plague — have grown increasingly shaky. The biggest setback yet came this past November, when the National Research Council (NRC), a part of the nonprofit, nonpartisan, congressionally established National Academies, issued a scathing assessment of a draft safety review that the NIH, the biolab’s primary funder, had prepared in support of the project.

That draft, which was completed in July 2007, looked to be a boon for biolab backers. It concluded, essentially, that putting the biolab on the South End-Roxbury border would be just as safe — maybe even safer! — as putting it in two alternate, non-urban locations (Tyngsborough, Massachusetts, and Peterborough, New Hampshire).

The NRC’s retort, which came as the NIH study was being circulated for public comment, was remarkably harsh. The NIH’s scientific analyses, the NRC concluded, were “not sound and credible.” The worst-case scenarios the NIH was supposed to explore were “not adequately identified and thoroughly developed.” And its comparison of risks at the South End site with elsewhere did “not include the appropriate level of information.” Yes, the NRC said, the country needs BSL-4 laboratories; and yes, some of them already exist in major urban areas (including Atlanta and Bethesda, Maryland). Still: “The selection of sites for high-containment laboratories, whether in urban or rural areas, [needs to] be supported by detailed analyses summarizing the available scientific information.” This was a very polite way of saying that the NIH’s study was almost worthless.

That biolab opponents cheered this outcome isn’t surprising. What is surprising, though, is that BU and BUMC are depicting the NRC’s report and its aftermath — the creation, by the NIH, of a “blue-ribbon panel” charged with establishing the biolab’s safety once and for all — as positive developments. “The goal of Boston University Medical Center,” Ellen Berlin, BUMC’s spokesman, told the Phoenix, “is that all the issues and concerns raised are addressed appropriately. And that’s what we’re seeing now.”

From a PR perspective, this is reasonable spin. But it would be far more convincing if the NRC study had been an isolated hiccup on the biolab’s otherwise steady march to completion.

Sadly, that hasn’t been the case. There were, for starters, two lawsuits — one state, one federal — brought by biolab opponents, who claimed that the failure to adequately explore the project’s safety risks violated the Massachusetts and National Environmental Protection Acts, respectively. The state case concluded in August 2006, when Suffolk Superior Court Judge Ralph D. Gants ordered the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (MEOEA) to review the project again. According to Gants, the MEOEA’s December 2004 decision to sign off on the biolab — which came under the Romney administration and former MEOEA secretary Ellen Roy Herzfelder — had been “arbitrary and capricious,” and failed to grapple with a worst-case scenario involving the accidental release of a pathogen into the surrounding neighborhood.

The federal case, which culminated in a judge’s order two months later, wasn’t a total defeat for biolab supporters. The plaintiffs had asked Judge Patti B. Saris to issue an injunction halting construction of the facility; Saris declined. But Saris also chose to retain oversight of the project — and reserved the right, down the road, to curtail BSL-4 activity at the site.

It’s the federal case that prompted NIH to expand its assessment of the biolab’s potential safety risk. At this point, though, the two cases converged. The plan, initially, was to provide the NIH’s new findings to both the state (in response to Gants’s ruling) and to Saris. But following the NRC’s November 2007 evisceration of the NIH’s draft report, that plan was scrapped.

A month after the NRC weighed in, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld Gants’s decision on appeal. A month after that, in January 2008, the NIH announced that its latest review — the “blue-ribbon panel” effort announced in the wake of the NRC’s condemnation — might not be completed until August 2009, two years after the facility was originally supposed to be completed. What happens then depends on whether the NIH finally gets it right; in the interim, the only work going on at the biolab will be the construction of the building itself.

Kept under wraps
Taken collectively, these weren’t just legal defeats for biolab backers. They were diplomatic losses, too, since they called past assurances about the biolab’s safety into question, and bolstered critics who’d occasionally been dismissed as ignorant scaremongers.

The tularemia debacle had much the same effect. In May 2004, two BU researchers became ill with what was apparently tularemia, a BSL-3 bacterial illness also known as rabbit fever. Another researcher was infected that September. But the outbreaks weren’t reported to the city, the state, and the feds until that November. And they weren’t disclosed to the general public until the press got wind of the story in January 2005 — after the city and state had already given the biolab their official stamps of approval.

At the time, a spokesman for Mayor Menino assured the Globe that, if the outbreak had represented a public-health risk, the public would have been informed at once. (Tularemia is transmitted from animals to humans, but not between humans.) Still, for biolab opponents, the outbreak served as a cautionary tale. Lesson One: the powers-that-be can’t be trusted to inform the public. Lesson Two: research on pathogens is inherently risky.

To make matters even worse — at least for biolab backers — a subsequent Boston Public Health Commission investigation of the tularemia affair cited “routine failure to comply with safety protocols” at the BU laboratory in question (also situated on Albany Street), called the failure to identify work-related sickness in the infected researchers “a major concern,” and chided BU for failing to report the first outbreak in a timely manner.

Thus far, the biolab’s legal and diplomatic mishaps haven’t quite been replicated in the political realm. As of this writing, none of the project’s early proponents has renounced his support. What has changed, though, is that Governor Romney has been replaced by Governor Deval Patrick. And it was the Patrick administration this past fall that commissioned the NRC to kick the tires of the most recent NIH study.

This doesn’t mean that Patrick — who regularly touts the importance of biotechnology to the state’s economy — should be regarded as a biolab opponent. But he’s not an enthusiastic booster, either. And whatever position he eventually stakes out, his decision to enlist the NRC has already changed the course of the battle.

It’s also worth noting that, in the future, the imminent completion of the biolab building might provide an escape clause that allows politicians who’ve supported the project to change their minds. “Now it’s not a question the unions have to weigh in on, in terms of their losing opportunities for construction dollars,” notes Boston city councilor Chuck Turner, a long-standing biolab detractor. “Now the focus is more on the question of whether the BSL-4 aspect can go forward. That’s changed the dynamic.”

Congressman Capuano, whose district includes the biolab site, may be something of a bellwether here. Capuano is a strong union supporter. He’s also been a staunch biolab backer. Recently, he told the Phoenix that he believes the NIH is proceeding appropriately. “I understand that people have questions that haven’t been answered. Those questions are serious and important, and they need to be answered fairly and scientifically.”

But then he added this: “I’ve said from day one that I would change my mind if neutral scientific evidence indicated that the biolab couldn’t be operated safely. And if the answers don’t come back the way they’re supposed to, they’re going to have one heck of an empty building.”

A gray matter
In fact, whatever happens next, the biolab isn’t going to end up empty. Just 15 percent of the space (exact whereabouts unknown, for security reasons) is currently earmarked for BSL-4 work. If that portion of the project is ultimately nixed, lower-security research of some sort will still occur.

This is an outcome that Klare Allen — an organizer with the Roxbury group SafetyNet, and a plaintiff in both the state and federal suits — says she’d be happy to tolerate. For the past several years, Allen’s home office, in a creaky walk-up near Franklin Park, has been the epicenter of anti-biolab activity in the city. One wall is dominated with a huge handmade poster: next to a spider with the biohazard symbol on its back, there’s a slogan: NO BIO TERROR LAB. Another wall is covered with to-do lists: “Lobbying of city councilors,” “Call South End residents,” “Make stickers to wear.” Right now, says Allen, her network of committed anti-biolab activists numbers around 80; her political allies include Councilor Turner (who’s proposed banning BSL-4 labs in Boston) and State Representative Gloria Fox (who’s filed legislation that would regulate BSL-4 activity around the state).

When I visited Allen in her office a few weeks ago, I assumed that recent anti-biolab victories would have left her ebullient. I was wrong. Yes, Allen said, the NRC’s report had been a boon to her cause. (“It helped a great deal,” she says. “It brought us legitimacy.”) But she was also irked that biolab opponents — many of whom are, like her, African-American — hadn’t been taken seriously until outside entities, such as the courts and the NRC, started agreeing with them. “It’s a shame that every time a person of color brings something up, you have to have a white person beside you — someone with the authority to say, ‘There is cause for concern,’ ” she complained. “And then everybody’s, like, ‘Okay, then!’ ”

But is it a question of race, or of expertise? After all, ever since the beginning, biolab opponents have had to contend with impressively credentialed scientists — including representatives of the NIH — who promised that the facility would be safe. The reason the NRC’s finding made waves is because it involved other credentialed scientists ruling that these assurances had been shoddy and unconvincing.

“I think it’s about race when they’re placing [these facilities],” Allen answered. “Because I’m talking to people nationally, in twelve other states. The majority of those folks who are fighting are people of color. I think it was racial when we were trying to get the word out, and nobody would listen to a word we were saying, except for a chosen few.”

Allen may be frustrated by what she considers a lack of respect. But she’s also using this frustration as a motivational force. At one point, she cited a comment she claims was made by Mark Klempner, the biolab’s director, at a meeting several years ago. According to Allen, Klempner called the biolab opponents “incompetent.” (Klempner has since stated that he doesn’t remember making the alleged remark.) “If Klempner would have treated us with respect, if he would have answered our questions, we would have been like, ‘Biolab? These people seem like they’re cool, and we don’t know shit,’ ” says Allen. “We would have just went to the meetings, done what we had to do, maybe put up a little fight here and there.

“[But] you just don’t call a person ‘incompetent’ in a room of 90 and then expect for that person to walk away,” Allen continued. “And if that’s what you expect, then that’s a pretty good understanding of why you think this lab should be here. Because [you think] these people aren’t competent. [You think] they’re sucking 40s every day; they’re smoking blunts every day; they’re really not aware; we got ’em working three and four jobs; their kids are getting shot left and right; everything is going on pretty well. And we can plop this puppy in here.”

In fairness to biolab proponents, one problem with this theory is that it ignores the complexity of the biolab’s immediate environment. Roxbury — which sits to the south and west — is, as Allen suggests, filled with lower-income, nonwhite residents. But just to the north are the vast swaths of the South End that have become urban playgrounds for affluent whites. And the manses of the Back Bay aren’t much further away, either.

Still, the notion that there’s something nefariously racist behind the biolab is prevalent among opponents of the project. “I liken it to the Dred Scott decision,” Mel King, the South End activist, former mayoral candidate, and plaintiff in the federal case, told me. (In that case, King and other South End residents are represented by the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation.) “Those two black folks were told by the white court that they had no rights that they had to respect. And there’s no other way for me to understand how this has worked, other than that the people in the area had no rights that needed to be respected.”

Not surprisingly, this belief is a source of profound frustration for biolab supporters. When I recently met with Steve Burgay, BU’s vice-president for marketing and communications, and Berlin, BUMC’s director of corporate communications, in Berlin’s office — which is located a stone’s throw from the biolab site — they brought a list of almost 200 public meetings that BU has attended to discuss the project. That number isn’t quite as impressive as it seems — it includes regulatory hearings, for example — but the fact remains that BU has, in fact, tried to build support for the biolab in the surrounding community. “In the beginning,” Berlin allowed, “things didn’t go the way we had hoped. But as time went on, we formed a citizens’ group; we met with anyone who asked, essentially. If you, Joe Citizen, asked, we met with you. We held office hours in the community; we went to Keith’s Place in Roxbury; we sat at Rebecca’s Café [on Harrison Avenue] and said, ‘Come talk to us.’ We invited neighbors to breakfast meetings over a six-month period.”

Some of the biolab’s detractors, Burgay argued, “oppose the project under any circumstances. And in that context, it’s not surprising that they’re going to be less than happy with any outcome other than the project not moving forward. No matter how many times we talk, no matter how constructive or cordial the conversations are, if they don’t end with the [defeat] of the lab, they’re not going to be satisfied.”

He’s probably right. Of course, if Allen and her compatriots are utterly convinced that the biolab, as originally envisioned, doesn’t belong on Albany Street, Burgay and others are just as certain that it does. The difference, right now, is that the former group has the momentum on its side. And if that continues, what once looked like a can’t-miss project could meet a very ignominious end.