Boston biodefense complex faces legal challenges

A $198 million Boston University Medical Center biological defense laboratory complex's opening has been blocked by federal and state lawsuits brought by the public.

The complex, the first major setback since the Sept. 11 attacks to a lab authorized to research the world's most dangerous diseases, has promised the public that it will not be used to create germ weapons, a practice the U.S. renounced in 1969.

Instead, federal and state officials say, the lab, which would not conduct classified research for the government, would bar any attempts to make an existing bio-weapon more virulent. The lab would be used to aid in America's defenses against pathogens that could be potentially used in terrorist attacks.

Residents close to the complex in Boston's Roxbury-South End, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, would also be protected by the complex's high-containment lab, which is built deep inside the building. The 13,000-square-foot lab is in a vault behind one foot thick walls and blast proof doors. Negative air pressure will also be utilized to keep germs inside if a leak were to occur and workers will be clothed in enclosed, air-supplied moon suits.

Opponents of the complex fear that deadly toxins or organisms would still potentially be accidentally released. They also cite the lab's supply of bioweapons as a potential attraction to terrorists.

The complex's critics also cite the 2001 anthrax attacks, perpetrated by an insider at a lab, as proof that no site is completely safe.

The Boston facility, one of a group of high-containment labs, would handle dangerous agents with no vaccines or treatments known to exist such as Ebol a and Marburg.

The complex, known as the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, is scheduled to begin training this summer despite the objections. No work, however, can begin until U.S. District Judge Patti B. Sarris approves a risk assessment from the complex. Two safety reviews so far have been rejected as inadequate.