An expert panel today slammed a draft study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) on the risks of a proposed high-security biology laboratory in Boston, rejecting it as "not sound and credible." The harsh review suggests that NIH has more work ahead before the half-completed $178 million lab can operate at the highest security level.
The proposed Boston University lab in the city's South End, which has $128 million in NIH funding, will include biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) facilities for studying deadly pathogens such as Ebola virus and Lassa fever. In response to lawsuits filed by opponents who think densely populated downtown Boston isn't an appropriate site for the lab, NIH conducted a study of alternative sites outside Boston and of worst-case scenarios in the unlikely event of a pathogen escape (Science, 11 August 2006, p. 747). The agency released a draft report in July that found the risks were quite low: No more than about 100 people would die if, say, Ebola or the Rift Valley fever virus got out into the community. The state of Massachusetts then asked for an independent review by the National Research Council (NRC).
The NRC panel found numerous problems. One is that NIH failed to consider highly transmissible agents such as avian influenza and SARS. The 11-member panel also faulted the modeling--for example, NIH didn't adequately consider uncertainties about how quickly some pathogens move through the population. And the NIH study gives short shrift to issues of environmental justice, such as the higher risks to AIDS patients living in the South End. If the report were an article submitted to a scientific journal, "we would have rejected this," said panelist Gigi Kwik Gronvall of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Biosecurity in Baltimore, Maryland, in a press call.
Boston University environmental health expert David Ozonoff, a critic of the lab, isn't surprised by the review. "It just wasn't a good report," he says. In a statement, NIH says it will consider the NRC review along with other comments on the draft. Construction on the lab will continue, but the pending risk assessment could delay the resolution of federal and state lawsuits opposing operation of its BSL-4 suites.
Meanwhile, three other new BSL-4 labs funded by NIH are moving along without major opposition. All have environmental impact statements, but apparently they did not draw as much scrutiny as NIH's study on the Boston lab.