NIH responds to worries about Boston biodefense lab

first_img The agency said it has set up an internal committee to guide its efforts to address safety concerns and also has named a panel of independent experts to review existing risk assessments and provide technical guidance. The lab is partly funded by the NIH. Mar 6, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – The National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced the appointment of two committees to help address public worries about the safety of a biodefense laboratory under construction in Boston, 3 months after the National Research Council (NRC) sharply criticized an NIH risk assessment of the project. The NRC also said the NIH had glossed over environmental justice concerns related to the lab’s inner-city location. The lab is a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) facility, meaning it can handle the most dangerous pathogens. It will focus on developing diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines for both naturally occurring and intentionally introduced infectious diseases, according to the NIH. The facility is being built at Boston University Medical Center. Today the NIH said it has set up an internal coordinating committee “to guide the agency’s efforts to address safety concerns raised by community representatives and other members of the public,” as well as the NRC review of the supplementary risk assessment. Last November the NRC, an arm of the National Academies, asserted that an NIH risk assessment for the lab was “not sound and credible.” The NRC faulted the modeling in the risk assessment for “lack of transparency” and criticized the selection of pathogens for the scenarios in the risk assessment, saying the NIH should have chosen agents with higher transmission rates. The pathogens used in the assessment included Ebola hemorrhagic fever virus, monkeypox virus, Sabia hemorrhagic fever virus, and Rift Valley fever virus. Ellen Berlin, a spokeswoman for Boston Medical Center, welcomed the NIH’s announcement today, according to a report by the Boston Globe. “We are confident that the lab will be safe, and this third-party examination is an important step in the public process,” Berlin said. “NIH is doing everything necessary to minimize the potential risks to the surrounding community,” Zerhouni said. “We will not compromise the public’s safety in our pursuit of the public’s health.” The NIH also said it has named a 16-member blue-ribbon panel to “review current risk assessments and provide independent technical expertise and guidance.” In particular, the group will advise the NIH on the scope of any additional environmental risk assessment. The panel is chaired by Adel Mahmoud, MD, PhD, of Princeton University and includes experts on infectious diseases, public health and epidemiology, risk assessment, environmental justice, risk communication, biodefense, biosafety, and infectious disease modeling. Serving as a working group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director, the panel will hold its first public meeting Mar 13, officials said. Dec 5, 2007, CIDRAP News story “Panel faults NIY risk assessment for Boston biodefense lab” See also: “All of the analyses conducted to date indicate that the risks posed by this lab are extremely low,” NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, MD, said in an agency news release. “We recognize that the community has remaining concerns, however, and we will address those concerns rigorously, objectively, and comprehensively.” Mar 6 NIH news release Earlier, Massachusetts state officials had concluded that the NIH’s draft environmental impact report on the lab was adequate, but a court ruling invalidated the state finding. The state then asked the NIH to prepare a supplementary risk assessment addressing additional worst-case scenarios and other questions. That assessment was the one criticized by the NRC.last_img