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Adrian Walker

BU biohazard lab is an empty fortress

Boston University’s $200 million biohazard lab in the South End is like no other building in the city.

The lab is visible from Albany Street but its entrance isn’t, which is part of the security plan for a place where scientists could eventually perform research on some of the most hazardous materials on earth. Walls and floors are roughly twice the thickness of a normal building.

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It is built to withstand hurricanes, and its director brags that it will be the safest building in town if another earthquake ever strikes.

It is a lab, tucked in a densely populated neighborhood, that would operate with the most sensitive of designations, BSL-4. That denotes a lab that does research on deadly substances, ones with no vaccines or treatment. The pathogens, if mishandled, would almost certainly prove lethal.

It is also, for now, a virtually empty lab, and some people hope it remains that way.

Over a decade of community protests, Boston University has beaten back lawsuits aimed at closing the lab and won City Council backing. Final approvals are still pending from the Boston Public Health Commission and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Its critics, though, have been given fresh ammunition: The CDC confessed earlier this month to sloppy handling of anthrax and avian flu at its laboratories elsewhere, exposing dozens of employees to the deadly bacteria. The mistake was the kind that proponents of the Albany Street lab had called nearly impossible.

“The CDC example is a wake-up call, if you needed a wake-up call,” said David Ozonoff, a Boston University professor and the longtime dean of its department of environmental health who opposes the lab.

But Ronald Corley, the lab’s director, insists the lab will be safe, with no secret research. “The research is about public health and emerging infectious diseases . . . is completely open and transparent to the public.”

My own tour of the lab last week was a bit like being on the set of a science fiction movie. I saw the astronaut-like suits researchers will wear, the storage places for exotic pathogens, and the chemical showers scientists will rinse in after they come out of the sealed labs. It was undeniably impressive.

But something was missing: people. The lab is technically open, even if not yet approved for full operation, so why one empty room after another?

Corley explained that the delays in opening the lab have made it impossible to recruit scientists. One quit not long ago because the lab had not opened at the promised level, and he took a $26 million grant with him. Almost all of the roughly 100 current employees are either security or maintenance staff.

BU’s lab costs $700,000 a month to run and it is operating at less than one-eighth of capacity. To call it a white elephant is an understatement.

With final approval still a year or more off, you can understand BU’s frustration. The place was supposed to be a grant magnet, a draw for high-level research. When it was proposed, there were two BSL-4 labs in the country; now there are at least 11.

It is highly unlikely that BU’s lab will result in some neighborhood-threatening accident. But the question of why it needs to open there doesn’t have a great answer. Certainly, America needs to understand avian flu, but should that really be happening on Albany Street?

For answers, I tracked down Klare Allen, a quintessential community activist and a longtime lab opponent. BU officials used to deride her as a crazy lady who didn’t understand science, but after the CDC’s mishaps, she doesn’t seem so eccentric now.

Mistakes happen, she noted, and the risk is not worth it.

“This was never about the science, it’s about the what if,” she said. “There’s no Plan B, there’s not even a Plan A. I just hope enough is enough.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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