Sunday, May 2, 2010

Boston University's National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory (BL4) March to Irrelevance/ HuffPo

While millions of gallons of oils are spewing from under the earth's mantle in the Gulf of Mexico, and no one has a sure-fire idea of how to stop the river of oil, we have the perfect backdrop for a discussion of Boston's Highest-Containment (BL-4) biodefense lab.

The lab has been built but is still empty, waiting for its bugs.  As is usual these days, inadequate attention to "What if?" considerations by the authorities led to citizen lawsuits, which have successfully kept the lab closed.  During World War II, US authorities used excellent foresight, and placed labs that researched deadly pathogens offshore: for example, on Plum Island, NY and Horn Island, Mississippi.

We now live in the Era of Hubris.  As a society, we blithely assume things will be safe.  We take cursory precautions.  Deadly pathogens sometimes leave their labs by mistake, but so far no one has died (that we know of), though some people have gotten very sick.   The national animal pathogens lab is due to be sited in Manhattan, Kansas-- smack in the middle of cattle country.   Why inconvenience the staff by having them take a ferry to work on an offshore island?  In Boston, they can take the "T".

We leave it to the markets to regulate themselves, based on theories that fail to take into account human nature and past bank failures (and don't acknowledge that perfect markets are only found in economics textbooks).  And when the banks that are too big to fail do fail, we print money for them, keeping our fingers crossed about the long-term consequences.

Dr. Lynn Klotz and Edward Sylvester discuss the Boston University lab in the Huffington Post.  They are the authors of Breeding Bio Insecurity: How U.S. Biodefense Is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk, and Making Us All Less Secure, University of Chicago Press, Oct. 15, 2009.

Klotz and Sylvester note that opposing citizens state the following:
The lab would pose catastrophic health and safety risks to the Greater Boston Area, create a potential terrorist target, undermine public health by diverting research funds to military purposes, [and] operate without community or public oversight ....
This piece does a great job discussing the risks and benefits of the biolab.


Andy said...

I think BSL4 labs are much more safe than BSL3 labs in terms of risk for the community. science has to go where the funding is, and when the government decides to fund this kind of research boston should be happy to get its piece of the pie.

Meryl Nass, M.D. said...

These labs are 100% safe until a bug gets out. Then you have a 100% failure. There have been plenty of failures, some of which made the news:

1) live anthrax was sent to Oakland Children's Hospital, as it was not properly killed before sending.
2) Multiple tularemia infections in BU researchers and students
3) Tularemia infection in a Fort Detrick researcher in December 2009 (