Regulating High Security Bio-Terror Research




M

assachusetts
State Representative Frank Smitzik was forced to make liberal use
of his gavel in June while chairing the state’s Joint Committee
on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture. An enthusiastic
crowd of over 300 fans of the Act to Protect Public Health and the
Environment from Toxic Biological Agents repeatedly burst into applause
when they felt their side had scored a good point at a public hearing
on a pending bill. Representative Gloria Fox, whose 7th

Suffolk district includes the proposed site of a high level biological
laboratory, is sponsoring the bill. HR 1397, which would provide
comprehensive state regulation for Biosafety Level 4 (BSL4) labs
in Massachusetts. 


The
Boston University Medical Center (BUMC) has been working to open
a National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, or National
Biocontainment Lab (NBL), in the South End of Boston for over two
years. The NIH grant-funded project would be only the fifth Level
4 laboratory operating in the United States. According to the publication
“Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomendia Laboratories (BMBL)
4th Edition,” Level 4 labs have the highest classification
and are for “work with dangerous and exotic agents that pose
a high individual risk of life-threatening disease, which may be
transmitted via the aerosol route and for which there is no available
vaccine or threapy.” A press release from Fox’s office
reports, “Presently there are no federal or state laws that
regulate high security laboratories.” 


At
the national level, there has been a significant amount of concern
about the lack of federal oversight over a $6 billion-plus expansion
of the U.S. bio-defense program. In a recent article published by
the Institute of Science in Society (www.i-sis.org.uk) entitled
“Bio- defense Mania Grips the Nation” Dr. Mae-Wan Ho wrote,
“Under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
much defense-related research and development will be exempt from
the Freedom of Information Act and the Federal Advisory Committee
Act, and hence there will be little or no mandatory public disclosure.
Originally much of NIAID was to come under the DHS umbrella; this
was blocked by Congressional Democrats, but could change during
the current legislative session.”



In
his testimony before the Massachusetts committee, Mark Klem- pner,
the provost for research at BUMC, who is slated to co-direct research
at the new laboratory, was adamant that Boston University would
not conduct any classified research and that “not one nickel
has come from the Department of Homeland Security.” 


Similar
pronouncements in the course of seeking approval for other BSL4
labs have proved to be dubious. In his article Ho reported that,
“Officials at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston
(UTMB) are quietly retreating from a pledge made in 2001 that their
BSL4 facility will not conduct classified work.” 


The
prospect of constructing a laboratory that would conduct research
on some of the most deadly biological agents known to humanity—including
anthrax and tularemia—in a densely populated urban area, such
as Boston, has met with stiff resistance from community activists,
public health advocates, peace activists, and others. 


Opponents
have pointed out that the neighborhood immediately surrounding the
proposed site of the lab is home to about 16,721 people per square
mile, over four times as many people as the 3,478 per square mile
who live in the immediate vicinity of the next most densely populated
BSL4 neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia  operated by the Center
For Communicable Diseases. Lab opponents also charge that situating
such a lab in an area that is predominantly Latino and African American
is an act of environmental racism. 


Opponents
of the lab-regulating bill maintain that passage would preclude
the construction of Boston University’s laboratory and would,
as Klempner said in his testimony, “have an enormous chilling
effect on biological research in this state.” 


Responding
to opposing testimony from the hearing, an aide from Representative
Fox’s office pointed out via email that, “Cambridge has
strict regulations on what type of biological agents can and cannot
be studied. They have not suffered from these regulations and, in
fact, are arguably the biotech capital of the world.” 


According
to records from the hearing, 115 people testified or wrote in favor
of the bill and 45 testified or wrote against it. David Ozonoff,
a professor of Environmental Health at Boston University, testified
that the risk of an outbreak resulting from an accident or an act
of terrorism is particularly worrisome because, “unlike chemicals,”
biological agents “reproduce themselves and travel in social
patterns.” 


Long-time
community activist Mel King, who attended the hearing, told Boston
Indymedia he had come to support the legislation and he was “opposed
to the building of a bioterror lab anywhere.” King was dismissive
of BU’s PR friendly “humanitarian” rationale for
constructing the laboratory—that it would enable scientists
to do life saving research into emerging infectious diseases. “There
are places in the world where, if conditions were changed, the problems
would not be there. I am particularly talking about poverty. We
have the capability to deal with this and we don’t need a bioterror
lab, especially in an area that has the highest rate of morbidity
of any area in the commonwealth,” King said. 


Fox’s
bill enjoys significant support, both among opponents of BU’s
proposed lab and people who support the lab but believe that comprehensive
state oversight into the goings on at high security biological laboratories
might be prudent. 


Klempner
maintained that if the bill was passed, “We could not proceed
with doing any development until the Department of Public Health
and Department of Environmental Protection create a new set of redundant
regulations. It would end federal funding for the project.”
HR 1397 would provide regulations for the location, construction,
operation, maintenance, and security at BSL4 labs. It would require
reports regarding current research to regulatory agencies and mandate
regular inspection of laboratories. Additionally, the bill would
empower a community oversight board for any BSL4 laboratory built
in the Commonwealth to help insure transparency of operations and
research. The bill would also place a moratorium on the construction
of BSL4 laboratories until the structures are in place to carry
out state level regulation of the laboratory. 


It
was unclear whether the effect of this legislation would per- manently
short circuit BU’s plans to construct its laboratory, but it
was clear that the project was not the first thing on Fox’s
mind during her testimony in front of the committee. “We are
talking about regulations,” she said, “because we want
to save lives.”





David Taber writes
for Boston Indy-media and has been published in



Zine- world,
Up The Ante!, Z Magazine,

and the

Memphis Commercial Appeal