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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Court OKs Biodefense Lab for Boston’s South End

(CN) - A judge approved federal funding for a biodefense lab in south Boston to study the world's most deadly viruses, including the deadly Ebola virus, dismissing residents' concerns about the safety of the lab.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) seeks to fund a new National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) at Boston University Medical Center, located in Boston's densely-populated and primarily minority South End and Roxbury neighborhoods.

If the Boston Public Health Commission approves, the facility will house extremely dangerous pathogens for biodefense purposes, including the Ebola virus, Marburg virus, Lassa virus, Junin virus, tick-borne Encephalitis virus and Nipah virus. These viruses are considered among the most fatal known to mankind, causing either highly fatal hemorrhagic fever, or swelling of the brain.

Residents of the Boston neighborhoods and the Conservation Law Foundation sued to enjoin federal funding of the lab, arguing that the NIH has not complied with the National Environmental Policy Act.

But Chief U.S. District Judge Patti Saris, of the federal court in Boston, ruled in favor of NIH on Monday.

"While the community has understandable concerns about the wisdom of locating the facility in a highly populated urban area, the Final Supplementary Risk Assessment reports that the risk of infections to the public resulting from accidents or malevolent acts 'is extremely low, or beyond reasonably foreseeable,' and the probability of secondary infections is so low that none is likely to occur for any of the pathogens over the proposed 50 year lifetime of the Biolab," Saris said.

While proposed suburban or rural sites have an even lower risk of infection, the difference is "not substantial," the report found, even taking into account the use of public transportation by facility workers, because the most deadly viruses cannot be transmitted by airborne contact such as coughing or sneezing.

"This conclusion that the BioLab will pose low risk to the public is based, in part, on the security safeguards built into the facility, the low amounts of pathogens that will be present, and the culture of biosafety and training that will be integrated into every day practice at the BioLab," according to the judgment.

Saris noted that the methodology used in the Risk Assessment was reviewed by two independent sets of experts, including the National Research Council, which has been critical of the NIH in the past.

The NIH also adequately analyzed the risk of a terrorist attack at the Boston site, and found that the risk of an attack would be the same at an alternate site, even taking into account "target attractiveness."

Although plaintiffs were not permitted to see the threat assessment, the court conducted an in camera review, and concluded that "the defendants have provided evidence that the mitigation measures have been or will be added prior to the initiation of the NEIDL's operations and that the threat assessment is consistent with information gleaned by law enforcement after the Boston Marathon bombings."

Other factors weigh in favor of the facility's location in Boston, including "opportunities for efficient medical research collaboration and training with other institutions in Boston and Cambridge to advance critical research on biodefense and infectious diseases," the judge said.

Boston University spokesman Steve Burgay told the Boston Globe that the court's decision "affirms our view that this type of research can be done safely in Boston."

Opponents of the lab still have a lawsuit pending in state court scheduled for hearing in December.

Plaintiffs' counsel did not respond to a request for comment.

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