Fear in the Air

Anthrax. The word itself lodges in the mouth like a sore — the nasal first syllable, the scrape of the tongue along the front teeth, the end bristling in the back of the throat. Three years ago, few of us knew what it was. Then traces of a white powder started showing up in post offices. And soon, five people lay dead.

The government responded to the scare by throwing money at the problem. A lot of money. The federal budget for this year earmarks $3.8 billion for biodefense research including funding for 11 new biocontainment laboratories. Two of these will be biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) labs for studying the nastiest of the nasty. Think Ebola. Think plague. Think anthrax.

Out of seven applicants vying for the grants, two winners were chosen in the fall: the University of Texas in Galveston and Boston University Medical Center in Boston.

Dr. Mark Klempner was elated when he heard the news. Today there are only four BSL-4 labs in the country, so Klempner, associate provost for research at the medical center, knew this was a rare opportunity. “There has never been a coordinated effort to try to control these diseases,” he says. “This is one of those watershed moments.” He was not alone in his excitement. The administration at BU popped the Champagne when it heard about the selection, worth $128 million up front and millions more over the next 20 years. Construction unions readied themselves for 1,300 fresh new jobs just as Big Dig largesse was drying up. Mayor Tom Menino and other city officials salivated over the $1.9 million promised for local development and more than 600 new full-time jobs.

Amid all of the back-slapping, however, a few small voices in the South End and Lower Roxbury raised concerns about where the lab was going to be built: right in the middle of their neighborhood. And if anything went wrong, it wouldn't be just them who would be affected. It would be hundreds of thousands of people who live and work in and around this city. Quite possibly including you.

Depending on who you believe, Boston could soon become home to one of two laboratories: a biosafety lab or a bioterror lab. A facility to find cures for some of the world's deadliest diseases or a factory to develop the most fearsome biological warfare agents. A super-secure containment site impervious to accidents or a public health catastrophe just waiting to happen.

On one side sits BU, along with some of the most powerful politicians in the city: the mayor, the governor, even Senator Edward Kennedy. On the other stands a groundswell of disgruntled citizens who run the gamut from inner-city Cassandras to middle-class antiwar activists. They fear that instead of helping protect us from bioterrorism, the lab may invite it into our midst.

From the middle of a park in Roxbury's Dudley Square, Klare Allen sees doomsday. “If some of these things get out, we'll have a half-hour to evacuate the city,” she says, raising an eyebrow. “Let's try to picture that.” Images of the Southeast Expressway at rush hour spring to mind.

“It's not like if something happens, it's just going to be the black folks that have to deal with this. Listen, I don't give a shit what color you are; if it's going to kill you, it's going to kill you,” says Allen, a mother of four with wisps of gray amid her dreadlocks. Turquoise nails flash on her fingertips while she talks. “We're talking about incurable diseases here. I don't want to look over at my daughter while I'm watching TV and see her gurgling blood.”

The group that Allen helps direct, Alternatives for Community & Environment, was formed to tackle “environmental justice” concerns like trash-transfer stations and bus exhaust — not biological laboratories. When its members heard about BU's planned lab, they feared it was just one more hazard someone was trying to stick in their neighborhood. But as they learned more, they became convinced this was a much bigger threat than anything they had ever dealt with.

At a meeting BU held last year to inform its staff about the lab, Allen and a half-dozen other concerned (and uninvited) residents stood out among the scientists and faculty members. Despite Klempner's assurances that the most stringent security measures would be taken, the women smelled a rat.

“All we heard was 'Ebola,' then we heard 'Roxbury,' then we heard 'anthrax,' then we heard 'Roxbury.' After a while you got suspicious,” says Allen. What happened next cemented her opinion. From the back of the room, one activist asked if BU would hold a meeting with residents. “Sure, we can — if we can find any competent residents to talk to,” she says Klempner replied. Klempner says he doesn't remember the exchange, but for Allen and her colleagues, it was a gauntlet thrown down. “From that meeting on, we pretty much held hands and said, 'We're going to tell everybody and her mama about this lab, and we'll show him just how incompetent we are.'”

As the members of ACE and another community organization called Safety Net began researching biolabs, they only grew more worried. The four BSL-4 labs that exist today are at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, the U.S. Army Research Institute on Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland, the Southwest Institute for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, and the University of Georgia in Athens. None is in the center of a city. The closest to an urban center is the CDC, in a neighborhood where the population is 4,000 per square mile — compared with the South End's 17,000.

They also found that BU's claim that there had never been an environmental release from a BSL-4 lab in North America, while technically true, was not the whole story. Other countries had experienced releases and, even in the United States, worrisome incidents had occurred. A 2002 power failure at Plum Island, New York, which has a BSL-3 facility, forced researchers to seal the doors with duct tape. Last year, a package containing West Nile virus exploded in a FedEx building in Columbus, Ohio, forcing an evacuation. Also in 2002, two dozen vials of anthrax and Ebola were reported missing from Fort Detrick. Anthrax from Fort Detrick may be linked to the 2001 anthrax scare, according to FBI investigators. In other words, the very facility researching the response to bioterrorism may have been a source of it.

“These organisms are by design the most difficult ones to contain, diagnose, and treat,” says Jonathan King, a professor of microbiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and cofounder of the Council for Responsible Genetics, a Cambridge-based watchdog organization. “You have to assume that these organisms are going to get out, because workers will make mistakes.” If a worker accidentally gets infected — as happened in cases involving SARS in Taiwan in December and again in Beijing in April — he or she could unwittingly infect others. Because of that risk, King says, BU should put the lab someplace like Fort Devens, 35 miles northwest of Boston. “The reason they are not going to put it at Fort Devens or somewhere like that,” he says, “is because they want to enhance the prestige of the university.”

The clincher for ACE and Safety Net was a memo concerning a proposed BSL-4 lab in Montana. The memo was released by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the same federal agency administering the BU grant. It says putting a lab somewhere distant from major population centers “reduces the possibility that an accidental release of a biosafety level-4 organism would lead to a major public health disaster.” (NIAID officials insist the memo was an “unofficial document” that was inadvertently released and does not represent the views of the agency.)

By the time the next public meeting about BU's proposed lab took place, Allen and her fellow activists were ready. Now more than 100 strong, they listened to a presentation by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) in December. “They had their colorful flip charts and people on the panel talking about God knows what,” Allen recalls. “But we wanted to hear answers to, How are you transporting it? What is the process if there is an accident? And they couldn't answer these questions.”

Residents began shouting more questions they say the panelists were unable to answer. “It was unfortunate,” says BRA spokeswoman Susan Elsbree. “There were a few people in the crowd who were not interested in listening.”

It's true that the members of ACE and Safety Net had made up their minds: With their urging, Roxbury City Councilor Chuck Turner had already proposed an ordinance to ban BSL-4 labs in the city of Boston. If the lab were going to be built, BU would have to make its case to City Hall. Light streams into Klempner's office, illuminating a hardwood desk and conference table where he sits. Though you wouldn't know it now, this used to be an operating room in the old Boston City Hospital, which was known for its work fighting infectious diseases like tuberculosis and cholera. Klempner proudly says the new lab will continue that tradition by providing space to research emerging diseases like West Nile virus, SARS, even HIV/AIDS.

“I've spent my whole life studying these diseases, and this is one of those opportunities that only comes around once in a lifetime,” Klempner says. Safety concerns, he insists, while understandable, are overblown. Only a small percentage of the lab will be dedicated to the most infectious diseases, and only minute quantities of material will be used. “We will build this to the strictest interpretation of the design guidelines,” Klempner says.

The lab will be surrounded by an eight-foot-high fence, and entry will require ID cards as well as biometric checks such as iris scans. Seven levels of security will follow, some requiring researchers to pass through in pairs. The lab itself will be sealed with air locks and cleaned with double high-efficiency particulate air filters. All of the systems in the lab, from sterilization to electrical power, will have at least one backup. “Risk,” Klempner says, will be “as minimal as one could conceive.”

The security measures proposed for the BU lab are in fact much higher than those at other BSL-4 facilities such as the CDC in Atlanta. “The design of these labs gets better every day,” says Pierre Rollin, a CDC pathogen specialist who was on the committee to review BU's plans. “It's going to be better than this one. That's for sure.”

The route from downtown Atlanta to the CDC lab passes through a residential neighborhood of brick homes, two miles from the center of the city. At the lab's entrance, two security guards check IDs of doctors and technicians passing in and out. Outdoor catwalks connect the separate laboratory buildings.

Standing across from the CDC's BSL-4 lab, Rollin and his supervisor, Thomas Ksiazek, point through the narrow double windows embedded in thick concrete. Inside, technicians work in blue biocontainment suits that even the scientists call “space suits.” They are connected to orange Slinky-like tubes that descend from the ceiling and blow air through the suits to force out any pathogens. The air in the room is changed up to 24 times an hour, and the scientists work under special hooded cabinets that contain more filters.

“We don't allow just one type of protection,” says Rollin. “The air is filtered, you are working under a hood, and you are wearing the suit. When you have all of them together, the risk is zero.”

“Well, almost zero,” Ksiazek says, interrupting. “Nothing is ever zero.”

The difference between zero and almost zero preoccupies opponents of the lab at the next public forum, held at a packed Faneuil Hall in February as part of the federal government's review process.

“What happens if a terrorist shoots a rocket from the highway?” asks Amy Hendrickson of Brookline. “Or if a terrorist flies a plane into the building?” A Dorchester resident makes reference to the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, adding, “At the very least, that shows us nothing is fail-safe.” Others come out in support of the lab, including dozens of construction workers and representatives of other South End community groups. “They've been good to us,” says a member of the Blackstone/Franklin Square Neighborhood Association, referring to the group's interactions with BU. “They've come by and talked to us.”

The turnout at this forum, however, shows how the opposition to the lab has grown. After plans for the lab were announced, the activists in Roxbury reached out to largely middle-class peace organizations formed in response to the Iraq war. These activists were concerned about the lab's mandate to counteract bioterrorism, which they feared was a cover for bioweapons research. “This issue has to do with the militarization of our society,” says Eve Lyman, director of Boston Mobilization, a student group that collected $35 donations to sponsor 100 ads on the T.

The root of the issue for these activists is the extent to which BU would control research at the lab. Despite the school's assurances that all work would go through its review committees, the original request for applications from the government called for a separate bidding process for the right to operate the lab for 20 years. Even if BU wins that contract, the document says, the facility “must preferentially support . . . NIAID-funded biodefense research.” It also says the owner of the lab must allow other federal agencies to use it for bioterrorism research.

Those concerns were enough to turn Dr. David Ozonoff, a director at BU's own School of Public Health, against the project. “[The proposal] ignores the most pressing public health agents in favor of the unusual and the unnatural,” says Ozonoff, who fears the lab might become the source of some new bioterrorism agent, like the weaponized anthrax that may have originated at Fort Detrick, or something worse, like a strain of HIV crossed with influenza. “These agents are not constructed in some basement in Hamburg,” he says. “They are constructed in labs like this one.”

Klempner expresses frustration with these kinds of suggestions. “This has nothing to do with bioweapons,” he says. “This has nothing to do with anything offensive. This is about public healthcare. That is the complete mission.” An NIAID official, Dr. Rona Hirschberg, concurs that BU will have control over the lab. The agency even took the unusual step of issuing a statement to clarify the original request for applications, saying, “Ownership entails management and administration of the laboratory, including research protocols and related support activities. . . . Research to be conducted at the [lab] will be at the determination of BU.” But opponents contend the statement isn't binding, leaving the question still in doubt.

Standing outside City Hall, David Noiles wears a Tyvek painting suit right off the shelf from Home Depot, with a biohazard symbol taped to his back. It looks enough like a biocontainment suit to draw the attention of curious passersby as the 21-year-old Roxbury resident circulates a petition against the lab. “If anything gets out, this is what we are going to be wearing,” Noiles warns. Inside City Hall, several hundred people pack the council chamber, some sitting on stairs between the seats as the council holds a fact-finding meeting. More than 100 people crowd the hallway, arguing with police to let them into the chamber.

The hearing itself is a victory for activists, who had seen Turner's proposed ordinance banning the lab languish for months. But councilors who are still undecided are hard-pressed to find answers as the hearing stretches past the six-hour mark and presenters share alternately gloomy and glowing visions of the lab.

It's enough to frustrate Councilor James Kelly, who lashes out at lab opponents. “How do these scare tactics get into people's minds?” he grouses after listening to a laundry list of past lab accidents. “Rather than Chicken Little, the sky is falling, let us deal with the facts as they are.” He turns to grill Kyle Loring, a spiky-haired lawyer from ACE. “The testimony given [by proponents] is there is no evidence whatsoever there will be bioweapons involved in any way. . . .

Are you calling them liars?”

“I wasn't calling them liars,” Loring replies. “I merely stated they were not in a position to make that claim.”

Addressing Ozonoff, Kelly says, “What about the assurances that this facility is going to be made like a fortress? It's going to be even more security-conscious with the thickness of the cement, the filter system, all these things.”

“All the things that Three Mile Island had,” responds Ozonoff, as people in the gallery murmur behind him. “What two-foot-thick walls don't guard against are anthrax spores walking out on someone's person.”

The hearing ends, but the debate rages on. Turner is waiting for the environmental review process to conclude before he puts his proposed ordinance up for a vote. Prospects of getting the seven out of twelve votes necessary for the ordinance's passage seem iffy at best. (One councilor, who is on the board of the BU Medical Center, has recused herself.) Although four councilors oppose the lab, with only Kelly registering his support, the others are mostly young politicians with loyalty to the mayor and labor unions, who have leaned toward supporting it. “The whole question of bucking the establishment is hard for a young, ambitious councilor,” observes Turner.

That leaves council members in the position of judging an issue championed by the city establishment, even as the opposition from some of the residents they represent grows louder. As Jerry McDermott, chair of the environmental committee, mused aloud at a briefing, the councilors have to decide whether it's more risky to have labs like this in cities like Boston or more dangerous not to have them. “I have no doubt there are people out there — Osama bin Laden, others — who have no qualms about releasing this stuff in Government Center,” he said. “But how do we find the cures? We need to have these facilities.”