BU emphasizes redundancy in its NIH contract for Level 4 lab


By Bruce Flickinger

There are legitimate concerns about building a Level 4 biosafety laboratory in an urban center such as Boston, but there are also benefits. “The risk is the same whether you’re in an urban environment or in the middle of nowhere,” says Kevin Tuohey, executive director of operations and public safety with Boston University Medical Center. “The key is the building. The benefit to locating it here is you have the expertise, the resources, and the infrastructure. The intellect is here to carry out this type of work.”

The work is developing therapies for some of the most insidious infectious diseases-Ebola virus, avian flu, anthrax, plague, and SARS. It will take place in a seven-story, 19,000 gross square-foot building located in Boston’s South End, which will encompass cutting-edge containment, decontamination, and security systems.

This odyssey began in 2003, when the Boston University Medical Center won a hard-fought battle to host the laboratory, and received a $128 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study infectious diseases. The facility eventually will generate 660 permanent jobs, 150 of them for scientific researchers.

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Indeed, the building is the key. “We call the high-containment area a submarine within a vault,” Tuohey says, referring to the fact that roughly 15 percent of the facility will be Level 4 containment. “Both the building and the high-containment area are being built to very significant specifications.”

The structure will be among the most “cautiously designed and constructed types of buildings in the world,” Boston University officials stress. It will hold its own ventilation, electrical, decontamination, and waste-disposal systems, plus a state-of-the-art security system.

“All the utility systems will be backed up by on-site generation. These are hospital-type redundancies,” Tuohey explains. “Everything is to N-plus-one standards, so systems are always on standby in the event of a failure. We’ll have revolving systems in place for air handling, the decontamination of fluids, and waste disposal. Everything will be plus-one on top of what we need.”

Security and building automation will allow detailed monitoring of people and space, particularly with regard to access to the high-containment area. Security systems will encompass “biometric and proximity devices,” Tuohey says.

Two full floors plus the roof will be dedicated mechanical space. “There’s almost as much mechanical space as there is lab space,” Tuohey notes. Air is HEPA-filtered coming in, and goes through two cleansings on the exhaust side. Solid waste is subject to heat disinfection before discharge. “We need to be sure that everything going out is cleaner than when it came in,” he adds.

The facility will be completed and ready for operation in roughly two and a half years.