Boston University’s controversial research laboratory on Albany Street could be used for lower-level research by the end of the calendar year if the university is granted a waiver by the state.
Level 2 research, in which the standard safety equipment worn by scientists consists of a lab coat and gloves, is limited to the study of pathogens for which there is a known cure or those that are not spread through the air, Boston University officials explained at a neighborhood meeting on Tuesday. Some examples include measles, mumps and HIV.
Currently, no research is taking place in the university’s 200,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility, which was completed in 2008 and cost $200 million to build. For the past three years, the university has been jumping through hoops trying to obtain permission from the federal and local government to utilize the building for its original purpose – pathogen research on some of the deadliest viruses in existence.
About 16 percent of the Biolab is fitted with the equipment and controls necessary to carry out Level 4 research, which includes the study of dangerous viruses such as Ebola and Marburg as well as plague bacteria. The building is completely sealed off from the outside and has back-up sources of power, steam and water. Exhuaust filters are in place even though the labs are air-tight.
Researchers won’t be cleared to perform higher-level research until the National Institute for Health completes its risk assessment of the facility. The report has been in the works for two years and is expected to be completed this winter, according to Senior Vice President of Operations Gary Nicksa. The document will then be open to public comment before being presented for approval.
“If it goes through a normal process it will be six months,” he said. “Until it’s fully vetted, we’re not going ask to do Level 3 or Level 4 research, but we would like to do Level 2 research.”
With the Biolab potentially opening for business, Boston University has ramped up its community relations efforts, and will continue to meet with neighborhood groups on any issues of concern, Nicksa said. On Tuesday, Associate Vice President of Facilities David Flynn outlined the sophisticated safety measures put in place to ensure research is conducted responsibly.
“We currently monitor this building 24/7 and we can tell at any point when something falls out of range,” he said.
The potential presence of dangerous pathogens in a densely populated neighborhood has sparked resistance from residents who say the lab presents an unfair danger to those living nearby.
On Tuesday, South End resident Fritz Klaetke said safety measures and back-up equipment don’t allay his fears of human error.
“It’s beyond redundancies…it’s the human factor,” he said. “I’ve been in labs with friends where people are rushing out or cutting corners….not doing stuff in a by-the-book manner. I think that's one of the key factors."