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City Council Hearing Challenges BU's Push for Bio-Level 4 Research in Boston

 

This article was first published in City Councilor Charles Yancey's April 2014 newsletter.

Boston University brought a contingent of faculty members to testify in favor of Bio-Level 4 Research in the City of Boston, during a public hearing on April 14, 2014 at Boston City Hall. Nearly 125 BU employees, most who reside outside of Boston, wore stickers declaring their support for research science and their quest for new cures at the BU Bio-Lab.

Councillor Charles Yancey ordered the hearing as an instrument to prevent Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL) on Albany Street in Roxbury (commonly known as the BU Bio-Lab) from carrying out research on critical biological agents, such as the anthrax bacteria, toxins such as ricin and botulism, and viruses that cause viral hemorrhagic fever.

“I'm neither anti-research nor anti-science, but it's irresponsible to invite Bio-Level 4 Research into the city of Boston. Just one human mistake could be catastrophic for society as we know it,” he said. Other City Councillors on record against Bio- Level 4 Research are Councillors Michelle Wu, Tito Jackson, and Ayanna Pressley.

Councillor Pressley said there’s no reason to bring new threats into a community already with existing threats and challenges. Pressley also responded to BU’s claim that restricting Bio-Level 4 Research in Boston would be anti-research and anti-science.

“I am pro-science, but more than anything, I am pro-community, and my concerns have not been sufficiently allayed,” she said.

Councillor Jackson noted that the Boston City Council has the right and the obligation to protect its citizens. “This is not an anti-science argument. It’s a social justice question about what should happen in the Roxbury Community,” he said.

Councillor Michelle Wu said she’s on record against BU’s Bio-Lab because of her concerns about population density in Boston. According to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, there are 61,350 housing units with a population of 125,000 persons within a 1.5- mile radius of BU’s Bio-lab.

RESIDENTS SPEAK OUT AGAINST BIO-LAB

Mel King, representative of the Green Rainbow Party and director of the South End Technology Center, talked about the dangerous anthrax mailing sent from a US military Bio-Defense lab in 2001, and said BU's Bio-Level 4 research laboratory would bring, “outrageous, oppressive, and totally unacceptable danger to the community.”

King also complained that Boston University and the Menino Administration bypassed the regular community process for development, ignoring urban renewal laws. “They skirted all of the regulations required to get the community’s approval to review this. It’s an illegal development that did not meet urban renewal requirements,” he said.

Klare Allen, a community organizer in Roxbury who has devoted the past decade to preventing Bio-Level 4 research in the City of Boston, criticized BU and the Menino Administration for labeling community residents who oppose Bio-Level 4 research as incompetent.

“We have read, we had studied, and we understand the science and we understand the risks. It’s really is about common sense,” she said. Allen urged members of the Boston City Council to support Yancey’s ordinance banning Bio-Level 4 Research in Boston. “Your family, my family, and everyone’s family in here depends on you,” she said. Cambridge resident,

Vicky Steinitz, co-founder and coordinator of United Justice for Peace, praised the City of Cambridge for passing a 1981 ordinance banning the use of all biological agents. Steinitz, who presented a list of 50 organizations and community groups that have endorsed Councillor Yancey’s ordinance to ban Bio- Level 4 Research in Boston, noted that Brookline, Newton, Arlington, and Somerville have all safeguarded the health and welfare of their citizens by passing similar ordinances. “I am deeply disturbed by the disrespect Boston University has displayed to the residents of this community,” she said.

Marc Pelletier, a biologist from Jamaica Plain, said there all already enough Bio-Level 4 laboratories in the country and he called BU’s Bio- Lab an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars. Pelletier also accused BU of being more interested in building the facility than in providing critical risk assessment. “It shows that they're not really honest partners,” he said.

Mary Crotty of the Massachusetts Nurses Association said she supports Councillor Yancey’s ordinance to ban Bio-Level 4 Research in the City of Boston.

City Councillors Josh Zakim, Frank Baker, Tim McCarthy, Matt O'Malley, and Michael Flaherty, chair of the Committee on Government Operations, attended the hearing.

Council President, Bill Lineman, did not attend the hearing but in written testimony he pledged his support for Bio-Level 4 research in the City of Boston.

Councillor Yancey noted that an outbreak of these critical agents, which pose the most serious threats to human beings, are easily disseminated or transmitted from person to person, and could result in high morbidity and mortality rates, resulting in public panic and social disruption.

CITY OFFICIALS TESTIFY

Several city officials testified during the hearing to ban Bio-Level 4 Research in Boston.

Dr. Barbara Ferreira, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, downplayed threat of a Bio-accident and said she felt confident the city was prepared for an emergency. She described the city's oversight of the permitting process and its role in coordinating training for first responders.

Lieutenant Paul O’Connor of the Boston Police Department's Hazardous Materials Response Unit, said Boston Police have participated in multiple walkthroughs and have laboratory floor plans on file.

Gerard Fontana, a deputy Fire Chief with the Boston Fire Department, said 12 chiefs have already participated in hazardous response, advanced biological training.

Dan White, director of Medical Intelligence Analysis at Boston EMS, said 45 of Boston’s EMTs, paramedics, and command staff have participated in emergency response drills and exercises.

BU FACULTY DEFENDS LEVEL 4 RESEARCH

Gloria Waters, vice president of research at BU, said the Bio-Lab will attract $45 million a year in federal funding and help to make Boston a leader in microbial diseases. She also said half of the research will entail treatment and cure of diseases.

Dr. Ron Corley, assistant vice president for the BU Medical Campus and associate director of the NEIDL, said his rationale for carrying out Bio-Level 4 Research in the South End stems from his confidence in BU’s highly trained workers and from his confidence in BU’s track record of working with pathogens at all containment levels.

Corley also claimed there would be no weapons, no small pox, and no classified research in the Bio-Lab.

Michelle Consalvo, BU’s vice president of Government Affairs, called Boston University the third largest employer in Boston and the largest contributor to Boston’s pilot program, providing over 100 million dollars since 2003.

Councillor Yancey reiterated that the intent of his ordinance was not to discourage research, but instead, to protect the people of Boston.

“I don't believe we should subject the public to this risk, which is too high a price to pay, especially for our first responders. It's an unnecessary risk,” he said.

 

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