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BU lab temporarily halts TB research after safety lapse

Says public was never in danger

Boston University has temporarily halted tuberculosis research at its high-security biolab after a malfunction forced a partial shutdown of the South End facility’s ventilation monitoring system in March, university officials said Wednesday.

A faulty network switch impeded air flow from two laboratories, prompting an eight-hour shutdown, BU officials said. The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories was closed at the time, and the shutdown posed no threat to public safety.

The malfunction was immediately reported to the Boston Public Health Commission and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a BU spokesman said.

“We reported the incident, as required, within 24 hours to the regulators,” Colin Riley said.


BU has suspended research in the affected laboratories until an outside engineering firm completes a review of the system. Freezer units containing pathogens were not affected by the malfunction, officials said, and redundant safety systems operated as intended.

In a statement, the city’s public health commission said there was “no public impact from the ventilation shutdown.” The commission will review the engineering report and inspect the lab before it reopens.

“Boston University followed the proper protocol in responding to and reporting the mechanical malfunction,” the commission said. The issue was reported Wednesday by BU Today, a university publication.

The university decided not to make the incident public until it had received a preliminary report from Merrick & Co.,the Colorado-based engineering firm hired to review the incident and BU's response.

“We chose to wait until they could provide their own analysis,” Riley said.

The firm’s preliminary recommendations include increased monitoring and improving the mechanism that shuts off air supply units when the exhaust fans are not working, the university said.

The firm is expected to complete its report in the next several weeks, Riley said.

The incident renews safety questions at the seven-story building on Albany Street, where scientists research some of the world’s deadliest diseases, such as Ebola. Local residents vigorously opposed the laboratories, which were built with $200 million in federal money on the campus of BU's medical school.


The incident occurred at 8 p.m. on March 21, when a component on a network switch failed, prompting the ventilation monitoring system to temporarily shut down. The malfunction caused exhaust fans to stop working, which increased air pressure in the laboratories, the university said.

The switch was repaired by midnight, and the system was restored at about 4:45 a.m. the next day.

Kathy McCabe can be reached at Katherine.McCabe@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.