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NIH approves bio lab at BU

Project still faces final state hurdle, lawsuit by South End neighbors

A decadelong push to open a controversial infectious-disease research lab in Boston’s South End neighborhood is one giant step ­closer to fruition, with federal regulators signing off on the project.

In a notice published Wednesday in the Federal Register, the National Institutes of Health said that after “careful consideration” it has concluded that Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, which will work with some of the world’s deadliest germs, “poses minimal risk to the community surrounding the facility.”

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The decision clears the way for final state ­environmental review, which has been in limbo pending the federal decision.

Federal and state lawsuits challenging the project by neighborhood residents and environmentalists also must be resolved.

The NIH decision said analyses by an independent blue ribbon panel and by an advisory committee made up of specialists in infectious disease, public health, risk assessment, and biosafety determined that the risks of infections or fatalities to the public from an accident or planned attack at the facility are “generally very low to only remotely possible.”

The analyses included scenarios such as an earthquake or a lab worker being accidentally pricked by a needle and failing to recognize or report the incident.

“The [lab] will be an impor­tant addition to life science research in our region, and its work to improve public health will have local, national, and global impact,” John R. Murphy, the lab’s interim ­director, said in a statement.

Opponents said the federal regulators’ final report did ­little to assuage concern that officials have not thoroughly considered health risks in such a densely populated neighborhood.

The facility, built on the Boston University Medical Center campus, has largely remained vacant since it was completed roughly four years ago.

“We still believe there are gaps in the assessment,” said Mina S. Makarious, an attorney at Anderson & Kreiger, a Cambridge law firm representing South End neighbors who have sued to block the lab.

In comments filed with federal regulators, the firm said reviewers failed to ­include a “meaningful discussion” of why the BU site was preferable to two, less densely populated alternatives that were considered in Tyngsborough and in Petersborough, N.H.

“An analysis of alternatives that assumes that the alternatives are the same in almost every meaningful respect (and that the resulting risk will be the same) is insufficient and, in fact, no analysis at all,” the opponents said.

BU opened a small portion of the building, known as a BSL-2 lab, last March for work on less dangerous germs. The university plans to eventually use about 16 percent of the 192,000-square-foot, high-
security building as a biosafety level-4 lab for work on the deadliest germs.

BU spokeswoman Ellen Berlin said the rest of the ­facility would probably not open before the end of this year or early 2014, assuming that it obtains all remaining approvals.

The NIH decision noted that even after the high-
security labs open, they will be subject to oversight by numerous federal, state, and local authorities, including the NIH, the US Centers for ­Disease Control and Prevention, the Boston Public Health Commission, and BU’s Institutional Biosafety Committee, which will include at least two members of the public who are not affiliated with the ­university.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.
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