Transparency is key to neighborhood acceptance of biosafety labs


By George Miller

Despite the highly publicized antics, a poorly attended biolab protest may have done more to illustrate the growing acceptance of Biosafety Level 3 and 4 facilities-even in urban areas-than to rile up residents. It also provided a reminder to lab managers of the importance of maintaining relationships with the communities in which they reside.

The lackluster effort, intended to protest a BSL-4 laboratory now in the final stages of construction at Boston University, coincided with the huge Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) trade show in Boston in early May.

At a time of growing competitiveness among state and local governments to attract biotech business, and among academic and medical institutions to win government research contracts, the likelihood of a BSL-3 or -4 lab popping up in a city setting or suburban neighborhood is on the rise. And in these days of color-coded terrorism threat levels, more residents are beginning to understand the need for infectious disease research, which is required whether disease is spread by terrorists or Mother Nature.

Boston University’s $178 million National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories BSL-4 facility is one of several being built with funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), in an effort to bolster United States biodefenses. BU Medical Center will receive $128 million in federal funds for the project, which is expected to be complete next year.

Document standardizes operating procedures

Legislation approved in 2003 calls for the NIH to establish national and regional biocontainment labs as well as regional centers of excellence for biodefense and emerging infectious disease research. A national-level guidance document, Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL) 5th Edition, provides operations and protocol details and is available at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site (

“All of our grantees are required to follow this guidance, as well as state and local requirements,” says Rona Hirschberg, senior program officer at the Office of Biodefense Research Affairs, NIAID.

National and regional biocontainment laboratories (top) support the research activities of NIAID’s regional centers of excellence (bottom) for biodefense and emerging infectious disease research. The biosafety labs also will be available to assist national, state, and local public health efforts in the event of a bioterrorism or infectious disease emergency, according to NIAID. Source: NIAID.
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Given a standard for operating BSL-3 and -4 facilities, the community relations job becomes one of transparency-letting the public know what you’re doing and that systems are in place for residents to be informed of mishaps and for authorities to respond.

Strained relations

Since NIAID awarded BU a grant to build its lab in 2003, the university’s relationship has been rocky with its neighbors in Roxbury, a low-income, densely populated part of Boston’s South End. In response to community actions, BU and NIH are currently conducting a second environmental impact assessment and alternative site evaluations for the BSL‑4 portion of the lab, even as construction continues on the building’s façade and interior. Residents’ opposition to the lab may have been fueled by a contamination incident in 2004, when three university researchers working in a BSL-2 lab were infected after exposure to tularemia. BU acknowledged that the researchers had violated safety procedures.

Historically, biosafety labs have an excellent safety record. Hirschberg of NIAID cites the safety studies of Karl M. Johnson, MD, adjunct professor of medicine and biology, at the University of New Mexico-Albuquerque, on the long-term safety records of BSL-3 and -4 facilities. As part of an environmental impact statement prepared prior to construction of a lab at Rocky Mountain Laboratories, Johnson, the retired founding chief of the CDC’s Special Pathogens Branch, reported in 2003 that no clinical infections occurred over 31 years at the three BSL-4 institutions studied. The study period reflected nearly half a million hours of lab and field exposure time, the majority spent in positive-pressure suits. No major defects or incidents in operation of the physical facilities were reported. No escape of any agent with clinical consequences for neighboring communities occurred.

In a separate study of BSL-3 labs, Johnson likewise found that no agent had escaped to cause infection in adjacent civilian communities.

Community needs view into lab ops

Those running such labs agree that a clear view into lab operations is key to community acceptance. “The number one [job] is transparency and keeping the community fully informed,” says Hirschberg.

At the Howard T. Ricketts Regional Biosafety Lab in Chicago, research operations manager Debra Anderson has adapted a community relations template established more than half a century ago for nuclear energy research. The lab’s work is temporarily being conducted at the University of Chicago. When a new facility is completed in 2008 some 25 miles southwest at Argonne National Labs-where Enrico Fermi led the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in 1942-biosafety lab operations will shift there, to be co-located with NIH’s Great Lakes Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases.

“We’ve designed a community relations plan that models Argonne’s historical methods: very transparent, very active,” says Anderson, who is also associate director of the Great Lakes Regional Center of Excellence. “If you’re not transparent, it’s easy for assumptions to be made [by the public],” she adds.

Outreach addresses common fears

Ricketts Lab outreach has done a lot to calm community fears, Anderson notes. Organizers of the $31 million BSL-3 lab created a committee to advise the University of Chicago on outreach strategy and topics of interest to the community. “The committee has been very valuable and was recently formalized,” she says. “What we hear routinely is, ‘How will we know if there’s a problem? Will physicians know?’ You get to see [residents’] understanding of containment safety levels. We’ve provided education and it’s been well received.”

Direct contact with residents is also working at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. The school is building a $26 million BSL-3 regional biocontainment lab in Grafton, MA, a town of 15,000 residents located 40 miles west of Boston. Completion is estimated for August 2009.

A community advisory group provides a means for quarterly public discussion between Tufts and Grafton residents. It is the Cummings School’s “key connection to its neighbors,” said interim dean Sawkat Anwer, providing dialogue between the campus and the community.

Tufts established several community boards in its outreach efforts, according to Anwer, and has participated in town-sponsored boards and committees. The school also works with the Grafton liaison group on local government issues and an institutional biosafety committee to meet regulatory requirements.