BU biolab raises evacuation concern

Published 9 February 2006

BU cleared the legal hurdles to building a Level 4 biolab on campus — and the city of Boston’s evacuation plans in case of a disaster come under scrutiny

Remember Matt Damon and Robin Williams, both playing Southies in “Good Will Hunting”? Well, they should worry: We reported a few days ago that Boston University has cleared the last legal hurdle to build a high-security biolab to search for vaccines and antidotes to bioterrorism. Critics complained from the start that the middle of an urban center is not the ideal place for such a lab — and now critics say that the city’s evacuation plans could backfire with deadly consequences in the case of a major mishap at a new bio-research lab slated for the heart of the South End. Proponents of the federally funded lab, which will probe some of the deadliest viruses known to humanity in a densely packed urban neighborhood, have expressed comfort with City Hall’s elaborate new plan to empty the Hub in case of future disasters. Critics, however, say such a move could boomerang if a deadly biowarfare agent were to escape into the surrounding South End neighborhood from Boston University Medical Center’s planned bio-research lab, scheduled to open two years from now. Under one unpleasant scenario, a mass exodus would simply send infected residents scurrying to the suburbs, further spreading whatever modern-day plague had made its way out of the research center.

Boston public health officials acknowledge they have no plans either for a specific disaster or quarantine plan for the neighborhood, while agreeing evacuation would be the wrong approach. “I can recall people talking about the lab and talking about evacuation in the unlikely event that something would happen at the lab. That would not be the first thing you would look at,” said Tom Lyons, spokesman for the Boston Public Health Commission. Yet city health officials say there is no need for a plan to cordon off the neighborhood — even though they have quarantine powers. Instead, they are drawing up a series of regulations calling for oversight of the new, Level 4 lab aimed at quickly containing — and treating — any emergency in the facility.

-read more in this report