It is unlikely that the decision by the National Institutes of Health that the National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory, known as the Boston University biolab, “poses very little risk to the public” will change the minds of Boston neighbors who oppose it. But the federal government’s conclusive assessment, performed by scientists and technicians who work with the same dangerous pathogens to be studied in parts of the lab, is a reassuring step. It sets essential standards to ensure the safety of the community in the years to come.
There is no denying that the lab’s request to work with level-3 and level-4 agents — such as the West Nile virus, SARS, and ebola — has some risk. The review admitted that reaching a level of “no risk” is an impossible standard, but concluded that the potential that a deadly pathogen would in any way endanger the community is “very low, to only remotely possible.”
The important security measures insisted on by the federal review include special clearances for those working with the pathogens, secure transport of dangerous materials, required pre-approval for any potentially dangerous research by the federal Biosafety Committee, and ongoing inspections by BU, the city, the state, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The BU biolab is already open, but its potential work with these dangerous materials can help expand Massachusetts’s leadership in medical and health research. These biological agents need to be studied so that, in the real world, any outbreaks can be identified and treated. While lawyers continue to fight the lab on safety grounds, the conclusions of the NIH panel undermine their claims. The focus now should be on ensuring that when the biolab opens to level-4 agents, it will always be as safe as it will be on day one.