Federation of American Scientists Case Studies in Dual Use Biological Research Module 8.0: Public Reaction Case Study
Topic: History Boston University Lab

On September 20, 2003 the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) at the NIH announced funding for two new National Biocontainment Laboratories. One would be located at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the other at Boston University Medical Center in the south Boston neighborhood of Roxbury. The announcement was heralded as a great opportunity for Boston biotechnology by Mayor Thomas Menino, Governor Mitt Romeny and numerous university officials. However, it was also met with great resistance from members of the Boston community who were concerned over building the high containment labs in such a densely populated area.

In January of 2005 it was revealed that there had been an incident in May 2004 where two researchers at Boston University, working with the select agent Francisella tularensis, had been exposed to the bacteria and developed tularemia. A third researcher had also been diagnosed with tularemia in September 2004. After the exposure had been confirmed in late October, it took Boston University officials several days before they notified the state public health department and city officials. The public was not told of the incident because the disease cannot be passed from person to person. This revelation confirmed the fears of many opponents to the construction of a high containment facility in the neighborhood.

Concerned citizens groups filed lawsuits to halt the building of the lab and complained that there had been a lack of transparency from the NIH and insufficient opportunity for the community to express its concerns. In November 2007, a NAS report criticized the NIH environmental impact report for the new Biodefense lab as being inadequate. This further confirmed community fears about the safety of the facility and the suspicion that proponents of the lab had been less than forthcoming in addressing their concerns. To comply with the issues raised by the NAS report, the NIH appointed a Blue Ribbon Panel to asses safety concerns, community comments and legal issues associated with the new lab. The panel will delay opening of the facility to 2009 from the previous target of August 2008.

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