After 15 years, deadly disease research lab nears approval in Boston

BOSTON — A lab to study deadly diseases like Ebola and bubonic plague is just one vote away from approval in the heart of Boston. Supporters say it will speed the development of new vaccines and cures.  But after 15 year of fighting, the neighborhood that's home to the lab is making a final push to keep the diseases away from the busy urban hub.

"It's the environment. When you open up your window, you see what we're smelling. That's what they're smelling in their house," said Roxbury activist Klare Allen.

Allen has been fighting for decades to keep her neighborhood safe, and says she's seen record high asthma rates among the children and cancer rate in adults. She made it a personal mission to stop a level 4 Biosafety lab from operating in Boston's South End.

Boston University received a $200 million federal grant in 2003 to build the regional lab.  The goal was to study deadly diseases. But critics say contaminants could spread region-wide when research material is transferred between labs.

A campaign issue for local leaders

Roxbury City Councilor and Boston mayoral candidate Tito Jackson is making the Biolab one of his campaign issues, saying the area is tired of being a dumping ground.

“There are at least two trash transfer stations. There's also a highway. There's a jail. In addition there's three methadone clinics. It's not a ‘not in my backyard’, but it can't all be in the backyard of that neighborhood," said Jackson.

Boston University maintains, residents will be safe, and conducts tours like to anyone who requests them.

In a statement B.U. told Boston 25: "The issues you raise have all been addressed many times over the past decade by independent panels of scientists; by federal, state and city agencies; and by a federal and state court. In every case the conclusion is that the lab can be operated safely in its location."

The final hurdle before approval

After years of failed legal battles, the lab already exists, but B.U. is not allowed to use it for level-4 research yet. Last year, the CDC approved the lab's operation. The final hurdle is the city's health commission who will have unique oversight of the federal lab.

Executive Director Monica Valdes Lupi alone has to grant approval. The health commission says it has no timeline for approving or denying the lab's request.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was outspoken against the lab during his 2013 campaign for mayor, but he says he’s confident the city will be able to handle any risk the lab could pose.

"Ultimately if something were to happen to the Biolab, it's going to come down to our police department, our fire department. That's going to be protecting us here," said Mayor Walsh

But Tito Jackson feels the decision should now be up for a city-wide vote, given the risk to the entire city.  “We should be concentrating on neighborhoods on uplifting people in our neighborhoods versus the profit involved with this type of research at that facility," said Jackson.

Boston 25 has learned opponents of the lab are looking into a possible conflict of interest for the members of the board with ties to B.U.

There are 10 level four labs in the U.S. right now. The CDC has faced at least two congressional hearings after a series of other high-profile lab incidents in 2014 with anthrax, Ebola and a deadly strain of avian flu.