Biolab follies

How did BU's research facility go from slam dunk to almost sunk?
By ADAM REILLY  |  April 7, 2008

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Infectious nexus? Can rigorous protocols keep the BU biolab safe? By Adam Reilly
In the beginning — way back in the fall of 2003, when the “War on Terror” was still young — the notion that anything could derail the Boston University (BU) biolab seemed absurd. The federal government supported the research facility, obviously, since the National Institutes of Health (NIH) picked Boston University Medical Center (along with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston) over five other sites that wanted to build their own National Biocontainment Laboratories. The project also had widespread political support, both from the Democratic establishment (Boston mayor Tom Menino, Congressman Mike Capuano, Senator Ted Kennedy) and from then–Republican governor Mitt Romney.

Money was one big draw. According to early estimates, the biolab, officially dubbed the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, would inject $1.7 billion into Boston’s economy over 20 years and create roughly 2000 new jobs (two-thirds in construction, one-third permanent). But so, too, was the prospect of cementing Massachusetts’s status as a biotech Mecca — and a broader sense that landing the biolab would boost the state’s prestige. After all, only a select few facilities in the country do Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) research, which involves hands-on study of virulent, deadly diseases such as Ebola and Marburg hemorrhagic fever. And while the majority of the biolab’s space would be used for non-BSL-4 work, that was clearly the sexiest, most significant part of the project. As Kennedy said when the biolab’s founding, $128-million federal grant was announced: “Boston now is situated to be the world’s center in a battle against biological warfare.”

True, there was some opposition: neighborhood activists, a few lower-level politicians, the occasional fretful academic. The biolab was dangerous and didn’t belong in a dense urban area, they argued. And if it were proposed in a whiter, more affluent neighborhood — Wellesley, West Roxbury, the Back Bay — it wouldn’t stand a chance. But their prospects looked exceedingly dim, largely because plenty of scientists promised, from the get-go, that the biolab would be totally safe.

Those days are gone. Throughout the past few years, and particularly during the past 12 months, the biolab’s backers have suffered a string of setbacks: legal, diplomatic, political. Boston University Medical Center (BUMC) may still end up hosting a BSL-4 facility, but this is hardly the sure thing it once was. In fact, given the current momentum of the debate, the smart money might actually be on the biolab not coming to fruition, at least as it was originally conceived.

So what went wrong, exactly? Or, for those who see things differently: what went right?

Scathing reviews
Albany Street isn’t much of a draw, either for tourists or for locals. Unless you’re headed to BUMC, or picking up some flowers at the Boston Flower Exchange, there’s not much reason to visit. There’s minimal evidence there of the gentrification taking place just to the north, in the boutique-ified part of the South End. But if, for whatever reason, you did happen to walk past the biolab construction site, you’d conclude that everything is going swimmingly. The building itself — a seven-story, 192,000-square-foot, cream-colored behemoth crowned with a striking wall of curved glass — is nearly done. Viewed from the south or west, it’s already a striking, reassuringly solid-looking sentinel at Boston proper’s southernmost edge.

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