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?
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.
The irony is this: as the biolab has moved toward physical completion, the prospects of it actually conducting BSL-4 research — or even BSL-3 work, which involves fairly spooky subjects such as anthrax and the pneumonic plague — have grown increasingly shaky. The biggest setback yet came this past November, when the National Research Council (NRC), a part of the nonprofit, nonpartisan, congressionally established National Academies, issued a scathing assessment of a draft safety review that the NIH, the biolab’s primary funder, had prepared in support of the project.
That draft, which was completed in July 2007, looked to be a boon for biolab backers. It concluded, essentially, that putting the biolab on the South End-Roxbury border would be just as safe — maybe even safer! — as putting it in two alternate, non-urban locations (Tyngsborough, Massachusetts, and Peterborough, New Hampshire).
The NRC’s retort, which came as the NIH study was being circulated for public comment, was remarkably harsh. The NIH’s scientific analyses, the NRC concluded, were “not sound and credible.” The worst-case scenarios the NIH was supposed to explore were “not adequately identified and thoroughly developed.” And its comparison of risks at the South End site with elsewhere did “not include the appropriate level of information.” Yes, the NRC said, the country needs BSL-4 laboratories; and yes, some of them already exist in major urban areas (including Atlanta and Bethesda, Maryland). Still: “The selection of sites for high-containment laboratories, whether in urban or rural areas, [needs to] be supported by detailed analyses summarizing the available scientific information.” This was a very polite way of saying that the NIH’s study was almost worthless.