For humanity to conquer Ebola and other deadly diseases, we need the right combination of scientists to study them from every possible angle. Where’s that more likely to happen — in a state-of-the-art biolab amid the world’s deepest pool of scientific and medical brainpower, or in a hypothetical facility on the dark side of the moon, where no scientist will ever want to work?
The answer is obvious. Which is why Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, located on Albany Street in Boston’s dense South End, should be allowed to host research even on so-called Biosafety Level 4 germs — microbes that cause life-threatening diseases for which there is no vaccine or treatment. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made just that judgment, giving the biolab a crucial approval.
Built with a $200 million federal grant awarded way back in 2003, the biolab building — which I’ve toured — is impressive, highly secure, and woefully underused. The decade-and-a-half-long battle over Level 4 research has hampered its ability to attract researchers.
The Boston Public Health Commission, in whose hands the facility’s future now lies, shouldn’t let misunderstandings about how scientists operate, and about how to keep people safest from dangerous germs, get in the way of life-saving research.
Despite the stereotype of scientists toiling away in isolation, the study of disease is a collaborative enterprise. Ronald Corley, director of the BU biolab, notes in an interview that the Zika research already underway there depends on drawing together experts from different disciplines. A virologist studying the microbe linked to microcephaly among babies in Brazil needs to work with neuroscientists who specialize in brain development.
The “brilliance of the single solitary individual” is important, Corley says. “But you also require the engagement of people with different levels of expertise who constantly challenge [fellow scientists] and come up with new ways to think about the problem.”
Infectious-disease researchers are humans, too. Their professional needs — plus the career needs of their spouses and the educational needs of their kids — are best met in a big city, not in some monastic enclave in the middle of nowhere. Researchers’ inevitable concern for their own well-being protects the public’s health as well. “People don’t go in and do science if they think it’s going to be unsafe to them,” Corley told me. “The first person who’s at risk is the person doing the research.”
Opponents of Level 4 research at BU argue, in essence, that it ought to happen somewhere else. “Basic research, I think, on some of these very dangerous pathogens has to be done. But the center of an urban environment is not the place to do it,” biolab opponent Lynn C. Klotz of Gloucester said in a recent Globe story. “There are lots of places where there aren’t people around where they could do that,’’ declared longtime civil rights leader Mel King.
Yet for research that depends on a vibrant scientific community and experienced security and facilities staffers, there’s no better setting than Boston. Conducting Ebola research safely isn’t just a matter of ventilation systems and special hazmat suits; it also takes a corps of people who know exactly what they’re doing.
The arguments against the biolab have shifted with the years. Initially, the facility’s public image in liberal Boston suffered from its association with the George W. Bush administration’s post-9/11 antiterror policies, but he’s long gone. Opponents have also condemned the biolab as one more environmental hazard inflicted on an economically deprived area, but that argument has lost force as high-end condos have proliferated in the surrounding blocks.
The biolab is a touchy issue for Marty Walsh, who hasn’t expressed a preference lately on whether Level 4 research should proceed. He opposed it during his run for mayor, but has also tried to burnish the city’s reputation for scientific innovation. Of all places, Boston should be capable of accommodating complex disease research in a safe way.
The consequences of local decisions radiate outward. Opponents of Level 4 research fear some lab mishap that will touch off a disease outbreak. The greater danger is that, if Boston balks, the world will miss out on life-saving discoveries. The best way to keep everyone healthy, from the South End to sub-Saharan Africa, isn’t to put up barriers, but to use human expertise to its fullest.