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‘Level 4’ disease research can be safe, belongs in America’s medical capital

Few disaster scenarios capture the anxieties of our age like the sudden emergence of a deadly, invisible disease in a vulnerable population. In the anthrax attacks after 9/11, which were never conclusively solved, a biological agent took the lives of victims who had the misfortune of being exposed to the wrong pieces of mail. Films such as “Outbreak” and “Contagion” contemplate the consequences of deadly microbes proliferating with the help of air travel and the health care system itself. These are precisely the kind of events that Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories facility will prevent, but only if it is allowed to do the kind of research for which it was painstakingly designed and constructed.

Next week, a Boston City Council committee will hold a hearing on Councilor Charles Yancey’s proposed ordinance to ban level 4 research at the biolab. To pass such a measure would be to overestimate any danger that the biolab poses to nearby residents — and to retreat from the singular role that Boston plays as the world’s greatest repository of life-saving expertise.

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The very existence of the $200 million BU biolab, built mostly with funding from the National Institutes of Health, recognizes that scientific knowledge is humanity’s greatest safeguard against infectious disease. But understanding how to counter so-called level 4 pathogens, which are harmful or deadly to humans and in nearly every case are untreatable, requires working with them. The need to transport such pathogens to a laboratory in an urban setting, along with their continued presence in the building, raises legitimate safety concerns: What happens if a vehicle carrying a level 4 pathogen gets into an accident? What if an act of terrorism or an act of nature breaches the building? What if an employee accidentally — or, worse yet, intentionally — carries a lethal microbe out into the wider world?

These are legitimate questions, and biolab planners have gone to elaborate lengths to address all of them.

That level 4 pathogens are extraordinarily dangerous to infected individuals doesn’t mean they spread easily or quickly. (Smallpox, which is highly contagious, is held by international agreement in only two facilities in the world, and will not be used at the BU biolab.) Regardless, the security protocol for transporting pathogens to the lab is more rigorous than what federal transportation rules require; a tiny vial of pathogen would be surrounded in multiple layers of protective materials and then a hard plastic case, then strapped in the center of a vehicle away from its walls, then transported by two specially trained, background-checked drivers, so that the sample never goes unattended.

City councilors should not shoo aside a major health research facility out of broad cinematic fears.

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As for the biolab facility itself, it’s secure in a variety of ways: Among many other precautions, the perimeter fencing and the structure itself would resist truck bombs; auxiliary generators are housed on the roof in case of flooding; scientists who work in level 4 biohazard areas would clean up after themselves and would be expected to assist with medical emergencies that occur in biohazard areas; elaborate biometric security systems in high-level biohazard areas would require the presence of two scientists, reducing the possibility that one scientist working alone with pathogens could spirit a vial outside.

Recognizing that scientists at BU and the National Institutes of Health could make appropriate provision for all these dangers, former mayor Tom Menino allowed the biolab project to go forward. The controversy has been renewed since his departure; during last fall’s race to elect his successor, most of the candidates, including eventual winner Marty Walsh, expressed trepidation about level 4 research. Yancey, who’s been invited more than once to tour the lab but hasn’t yet done so, depicts his ordinance to ban level 4 research as proper precaution in light of the possibility that safeguards might fail. “I am not convinced,” he says in an interview, “we really need to invite that possibility to the City of Boston.”

City councilors shouldn’t kid themselves: Shutting down level 4 research will reduce the usefulness of the biolab and its ability to attract top-level scientists. Beyond that, it would hamper the advance of scientific knowledge about infectious disease. The BU facility is equipped with sophisticated equipment absent at many other facilities; some of the research projects that would otherwise occur at the Boston biolab might go to other facilities; but some wouldn’t occur at all.

Besides, most advances in science occur through collaborative effort — from scientists who can confirm, refute, and learn from one another’s work. It’s understandable why critics of the biolab might prefer that the research take place in an isolated facility far from any population center. But banishing this research from Boston, the world’s densest concentration of medical brainpower, would impede scientists’ ability to learn from one another.

Even though auto accidents killed 33,600 people in the United States in 2012, Americans accept that risk because immobility carries enormous costs as well. Day in and day out, residential areas north of Albany Street are at far greater risk from commonplace threats — speeding vehicles, gas leaks, faulty wiring — than from any research at the biolab. City councilors should not simply ignore the extensive safety precautions BU has taken, and they must not shoo aside a major health research facility out of broad cinematic fears. Medical advancement isn’t just one of the Boston area’s core economic engines, but also its greatest gift to the world.

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