The road to the biocontainment lab planned by Boston University passes through a tangle of forethought and conjecture. On one side are the multiple layers of official reassurance. On the other side are the alarming, though not totally implausible what-ifs of grassroots opponents. Between those sides at a hearing Monday, July 30, were members of the City Council Public Safety Committee. One member, Roxbury Councilor Chuck Turner, reaffirmed his opposition to using the lab near Boston Medical Center for “level 4” research involving the deadliest pathogens. But even his colleagues, Councilors Steve Murphy and Mike Ross, had their moments of disquiet.
The hearing was supposed to provide information about how biological agents would be delivered to the lab. But there was no representative from Boston University, which Murphy said would have plans ready for presentation later this year. The Council has practically no say over the lab, though a committee hearing does provide some leverage for inquiry. By the time BU’s plans are discussed before the Council, even that leverage could be diminished if an upcoming federal court decision gives the lab full approval.
The Council did hear testimony from city officials in charge of public safety and public health. The executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, Bárbara Ferrer, said she expected dangerous pathogens would be shipped to the lab only 4 or 5 times a year. “I would say we’re talking about a very limited number of pathogens coming into the lab,” she told the committee, “and a very limited number of experiments that involve using the pathogens.”
Regulations for shipment would have to be cleared with the Boston Police Dept. Superintendent in Chief Robert Dunford said there would be “point-to-point tracking” of shipments, which would have to comply with regulations for packing and security. This would include security clearance for carriers.
Councilors were told shipments would probably have to avoid “areas of high concern” such as tunnels. In the event of an accident, would all first responders know they were rushing to a level 4 bio-hazard? Not necessarily. Instead, councilors were told, responders would take an “all-hazard approach,” exercising “universal precautions.”
Turner even wondered if information about the arrival of level 4 shipment might circulate too widely. He said he was afraid the number of people being alerted would be “large enough to raise concerns on the security of the information.”
Dunford said responders would try to avoid that danger by having information “compartmentalized.” For example, he said, firefighters would not be notified about a level 4 shipment unless there were “an exceptional event.”
Earlier this year, at BU’s less hazardous level 3 lab, the notification traveled the other way, when medical waste caught fire in a sterilizing machine and the lab building had to be evacuated. The Fire Dept. responded immediately but, according to the Boston Globe, the Boston Public Health Commission was notified three hours later. There have been no reports of any infection from the fire, and it might be argued the incident wasn’t serious enough to trigger the regulatory requirement for notifying the commission immediately. But incidents in the level 3 lab were used by opponents to argue that even the best regulations and protocols won’t always be observed.
An opponent of the level 4 lab from Hyde Park, Mary Lee Marra, said hoping all biological agents would be safely contained at all times was a “Hail Mary pass.”
“Once they get out,” she said, “you can’t get them back in the bottle, even if you have the best cardboard box in the world.”
When Dunford said the city would be “in the driving seat” for security requirements, Councilor Mike Ross raised the possibility that local officials might have to yield to another authority. Ross was also less than fully persuaded about the dependability of the company that would be making shipments to the lab.
“I’m just not that comfortable with FedEx,” he said, “even if it’s FedEx Plus.”
Turner said the information at the hearing only reinforced his opposition.
“It should convince those of us who are not convinced that we should ban Bio-4 labs in Boston,” he said.
For Public Safety Committee chair Steve Murphy, the case was still incomplete.
“Legitimate transportation questions have not been answered,” he said, “and BU owes it to the public to answer those questions.”