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New risk assessment for Boston biocontainment lab

A US National Institutes of Health (NIH) advisory panel has released a new risk assessment for a controversial high-security biocontainment lab located near Boston’s bustling downtown core. The draft supplementary risk assessment for the Boston University National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) was released on 24 February and is the next step towards satisfying legal requirements for a more thorough review of the National Biocontainment Laboratory’s safety.

The NIH established the NEIDL to support research on vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for emerging biological agents that could pose a serious public threat. The 18,000 square-metre, seven-story building with biosafety-level (BSL)-3 and BSL-4 containment areas was completed in 2011,  but it has so far been used only for administrative and training purposes. Lawsuits from Boston-area residents and public-interest groups have prevented use of the NEIDL’s high-containment lab facilities. The suits were driven in part by public concern over the safety of the lab, which would house research on Ebola, plague and other high-risk pathogens. As part of the legal consideration of the facility, Massachusetts courts requested more thorough reviews of its risks.

Today’s release finds that “the risk to the general public is extremely low, or beyond reasonably foreseeable, with the exception of secondary infections involving 1918 H1N1 influenza and SARS”. A large outbreak (100 or more infections) of 1918 H1N1 was predicted to occur in a range of once every 1,400–10 million years, and SARS, once every 2,500–440,000 years.

“The greatest risk is to individuals conducting research in the building,” notes the NIH in a summary of the risk assessment.

The National Research Council (NRC), part of the National Academies, reviewed the report in December and found it to be a “substantial improvement over past documents”. In 2007, at the request of the state of Massachusetts, the NRC reviewed the NIH’s earlier risk assessment of the facility and delivered a scathing critique, calling it “not sound and credible”.

The NRC’s review of the new document still raises concerns that “failure of protective equipment and failure to follow procedures on the part of personnel are underestimated in the analyses”. Nonetheless, the committee wrote that there “is no reason to fault the document”.

Boston University, which runs the lab, was reassured that the NRC approved of the new report’s methodology, but otherwise responded mildly to today’s announcement:

“We are pleased that this stage of the Draft Supplementary Risk Assessment is completed. The National Institutes of Health and the Blue Ribbon Panel have worked diligently to develop a thorough and comprehensive analysis,” said Boston University spokeswoman Ellen Berlin.

Last December, the state granted the university and medical centre permission to begin BSL-2 work, which would include low- and moderate-risk microorganisms such as Bacillus subtilis and Salmonellae.

The NIH will host a public meeting in Boston on 19 April to solicit comments on the new risk assessment.

Image credit: Boston University

 

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