NIH Asks for More Time to Complete Safety Review of Boston U.'s Germ Lab

April 15, 2009

The opening of a highly secure “biocontainment” laboratory, built by Boston University for the study of dangerous microbes, has been delayed again after the National Institutes of Health asked for more time to complete a safety analysis, The Boston Globe reported.

The university won a federal grant to build the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories in 2003, and the building is now complete. Its centerpiece is a lab with the government’s highest security rating, “Biosafety Level 4,” or BSL-4, where scientists would study the most dangerous germs and pathogens.

Community groups in Boston’s South End, where the lab is located, have opposed the project from the start, arguing that studying such deadly microbes is too hazardous to be allowed in a densely populated urban neighborhood. Courts agreed that their safety concerns deserved further review, but allowed construction to proceed.

The NIH established a blue-ribbon panel to assess security planning for the lab after a National Research Council panel criticized previous reviews as inadequate.

Amy Patterson, acting director of the NIH Office of Science Policy, told the Globe that the latest safety review is analyzing the consequences of an accidental or malicious release of any of 13 infectious agents. “We want to get this right,” she said, “so it’s going to take longer.”

Boston University welcomes the further safety scrutiny, a spokeswoman, Ellen Berlin, said. “This is an important process,” she said, “and the time is necessary to ensure that it is done appropriately.”

The additional study time pushes the BSL-4 lab’s opening date to the end of next year at the earliest. Meanwhile, scientists who will work in the facility’s lower-security labs will begin training this spring, Ms. Berlin said. —Charles Huckabee