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  • Biolab Draft Deemed Weak
Dec 2007
WASHINGTON, Dec. 3, 2007 -- A National Institutes of Health draft assessment of the risks associated with a proposed biocontainment laboratory at Boston University is "not sound and credible," according to a National Research Council (NRC) report requested by the state of Massachusetts. The laboratory would include a Biosafety Level 4 facility for the study of deadly pathogens and be situated in Boston's South End district as part of the BioSquare Phase II project.

The committee that wrote the NRC report did not comment on whether the South End, or an alternate location, is an appropriate site for the proposed facility.

"The NIH draft report has serious weaknesses, in particular regarding selection of pathogens and lack of transparency of the modeling, leading the committee to conclude that the draft is not sound and credible," said committee chair John Ahearne, emeritus director of the ethics program Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, Research Triangle Park, N.C.

The draft risk assessment is intended to form the scientific basis for a supplemental final environmental impact report after the Superior Court of Massachusetts rejected an earlier environmental impact report. The supplemental report has not yet been submitted by Boston University.

The NRC committee said the draft does not adequately identify or thoroughly develop worst-case scenarios for the release and spread of a pathogen. While the committee commended NIH for working with the community to identify pathogens to include in the scenarios, it said the process appears to have led to the selection of pathogens that do not fully address matters raised by the state.

"One of the committee's main concerns was that the draft assessment does not effectively examine highly infectious agents and therefore is not representative of a worst-case scenario," the NRC said in a statement "A more acceptable analysis would have included agents that are readily transmissible and would have demonstrated that the modeling approach used recognizes biological complexities, reflecting what is known about disease outbreaks and being appropriately sensitive to population density, for example. A rationale for which release scenarios were included would also have been useful."

In addition, the draft assessment does not contain the appropriate level of information to compare the risks associated with alternative locations in suburban and rural settings for the laboratory, the committee said. "Again, considering pathogens that spread more easily would improve analyses of how risks vary depending on location," it said.

The committee was also dissatisfied with the draft assessment's consideration of environmental justice issues and in particular how the biocontainment facility could affect an inner-city population

The NRC report was sponsored by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The  NRC is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

Copies of the report are available from the National Academies Press. For more information, visit:

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