Expert Panel: Studies for Biodefense Lab Lacking

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

Federal officials are still stumbling in their efforts to analyze the risks of operating a high-security biology lab in Boston that would study dangerous pathogens such as Ebola virus and anthrax, says the National Research Council (NRC).

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded the $128 million lab to Boston University in 2003; the building is complete but not yet operating. But the university's plan to use part of the building to study the deadliest pathogens in biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) facilities has drawn fierce opposition from the local community. An NRC panel stoked those concerns in 2007 when it panned NIH's risk assessment. NIH started over.

But in a report released today, the same NRC panel says it "cannot endorse as scientifically and technically sound the illustrative analyses presented" by contractors conducting the new assessment.

The report says that the contractors ignored NRC's advice to first qualitatively assess the risks of 13 different pathogens, then quantify risks for a subset. Instead, the contractors forged ahead with modeling risks for all 13 pathogens by using expert opinion instead of actual data and information from case studies. The NRC report recommends a "mid-course correction."

The critique comes the same week that a different NRC panel found problems with a risk assessment for a huge federal agricultural biodefense lab planned for Kansas.

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