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Boston Lab Urged to Abandon Bioweapons Vaccine Work

An unopened, $192 million biological defense laboratory overseen by Boston University should work on countermeasures for existing threats such as AIDS and cancer rather than disease agents that could be used in terrorist attacks, local activists said yesterday (see GSN, May 18, 2009).

Plans to develop vaccines for lethal diseases such as Ebola or plague at the new National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories would endanger the surrounding area while offering locals no upside, the Boston Globe quoted organizers as saying ahead of a public hearing on the facility.

"We don't get anything out of it," said Klare Allen, an organizer with the watchdog group Roxbury Safety Net.

U.S. officials have also not adequately informed the community of dangers the site would pose, Allen added. "They just aren't doing their jobs," she said.

The laboratory intends to adopt a "one bug, one vaccine strategy" with relatively little utility, biotechnology expert and former Harvard University professor Lynn Klotz said.

"For example, a drug designed to cure anthrax would only cure anthrax; a drug designed to cure plague would only cure plague," Klotz said in a statement. "None of the (targeted) agents (are) a public health threat, so in the U.S., whatever they develop will have almost no public health value."

A member of a study team set up by the National Institutes of Health, the primary contributor to the project, disagreed.

"Infectious diseases remain a tremendous threat around the world," said Samuel Stanley, president of Stony Brook University in New York. "They kill literally millions of people every day."

Some participants aired concerns that work on biological weapons would be conducted at the site. The facility is barred under federal law from becoming "engaged with bioweapons," said Adel Mahmoud, a Princeton University molecular biologist who headed the NIH panel that fielded questions at the hearing.

Officials also discussed the safety work being done at the laboratory.

The university has begun conducting safety exercises at the facility using "simulated" disease agents, BU Medical Campus spokeswoman Ellen Berlin said.

In addition, the California-based company Tetra Tech has started assessing the site's safeguards against mechanical breakdowns, procedural oversights and "malevolent actions" that could allow research materials to spread. Auditors are expected to consider the site's measures against such problems as a waste system breakdown, inaccurately labeled samples and a "disgruntled or deranged lab worker" unleashing a disease agent in the city, presenters said at the hearing.

Responding to a legal challenge to the facility's construction, courts permitted work on the site to continue but called for further assessments of its safety measures (Travis Andersen, Boston Globe, April 29).

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