Panel faults NIH risk assessment for Boston biodefense lab

Dec 5, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Amid controversy around the construction of a biodefense laboratory in Boston, a project risk assessment from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is funding the lab, has been condemned as unsound by the National Research Council (NRC).

The findings from the NRC, an arm of the National Academies, were released on Nov 29 in a 28-page report posted on the NRC's Web site. The National Academies consist of four private, nonprofit, congressionally chartered institutions that advise the US government on science, technology, and health policy issues.

An NRC committee was named to look into the NIH's risk assessment of the biosafety level 4 lab, which will be located at Boston University, in response to a request from the state of Massachusetts, according to the NRC report. The state made the request after a court challenge invalidated the state's finding that the NIH's draft environmental impact report was adequate.

After it lost the court challenge, the state asked the NIH to produce a risk assessment addressing additional worst-case scenarios, alternative sites for the lab, and mitigation issues in the event of a pathogen release from the lab.

"The NIH draft report has serious weaknesses, in particular regarding selection of pathogens and lack of transparency of the modeling, leading the committee to conclude that the draft is not sound and credible," said NRC committee chairman John Ahearne, executive director emeritus of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, in the NRC press release.

One of the advisory committee's criticisms centers on the pathogens the NIH selected in the scenarios modeled and described in the risk assessment: Ebola hemorrhagic fever virus, monkeypox virus, Sabia hemorrhagic fever virus, and Rift Valley fever virus.

The committee said that worst-case scenario planning should have involved agents, such as those that spread by aerosol droplets, that have higher person-to-person transmission rates than most of the agents the NIH included.

Also, the committee faulted the NIH report for focusing mainly on a single individual or a small number of lab workers in analyzing the probability of a release of a lethal agent. The NIH should have included other possibilities, such as equipment failure, security breaches, and malevolent action, the report states.

Besides voicing several detailed concerns about the NIH's risk assessment methodology, the advisory committee said the agency's report glossed over "environmental justice" issues related to the lab's inner-city setting.

"Environmental justice communities are often faced with environmental stressors that wealthier communities do not face," the committee wrote, adding that the South End neighborhood where the new lab is located could face extra health challenges if residents' health is poor, public health services are lacking, or insects or rodents are common in the area.

In a letter to Massachusetts officials that accompanies the report, Ahearne emphasized that the report focuses only on the quality of the NIH risk assessment and shouldn't be viewed as a statement about the risk of a biocontainment facility in Boston or any other city.

"The committee acknowledges the need for biocontainment laboratories in the United States, including BSL 4 laboratories, and recognizes that BSL 4 laboratories are being operated in other major urban areas," he wrote.

The NRC report will be among other public comments the NIH will review as it finalizes its risk analysis, according to a Nov 30 Washington Post report.

Klare Allen, a community organizer who has led opposition to the lab's construction, told the Washington Post that she was pleased with the NRC's findings. "The NRC pretty much confirmed everything we've been saying for the last 5 years," she said.

The Post story, published Nov 30, said the lab is 70% complete. Federal officials have said that if they lose court battles over the lab, it will be used to study less dangerous pathogens, according to the story.

See also:

Nov 29 NRC press release

NRC report on NIH risk analysis of Boston BSL 4 laboratory

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