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Regulating High Security Bio-Terror Research
M assachusetts State Representative Frank Smitzik was forced to make liberal use of his gavel in June while chairing the state’s Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture. An enthusiastic crowd of over 300 fans of the Act to Protect Public Health and the Environment from Toxic Biological Agents repeatedly burst into applause when they felt their side had scored a good point at a public hearing on a pending bill. Representative Gloria Fox, whose 7th Suffolk district includes the proposed site of a high level biological laboratory, is sponsoring the bill. HR 1397, which would provide comprehensive state regulation for Biosafety Level 4 (BSL4) labs in Massachusetts.
The Boston University Medical Center (BUMC) has been working to open a National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, or National Biocontainment Lab (NBL), in the South End of Boston for over two years. The NIH grant-funded project would be only the fifth Level 4 laboratory operating in the United States. According to the publication “Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomendia Laboratories (BMBL) 4th Edition,” Level 4 labs have the highest classification and are for “work with dangerous and exotic agents that pose a high individual risk of life-threatening disease, which may be transmitted via the aerosol route and for which there is no available vaccine or threapy.” A press release from Fox’s office reports, “Presently there are no federal or state laws that regulate high security laboratories.”
the national level, there has been a significant amount of concern
about the lack of federal oversight over a $6 billion-plus expansion
of the U.S. bio-defense program. In a recent article published by
the Institute of Science in Society (www.i-sis.org.uk) entitled
“Bio- defense Mania Grips the Nation” Dr. Mae-Wan Ho wrote,
“Under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
much defense-related research and development will be exempt from
the Freedom of Information Act and the Federal Advisory Committee
Act, and hence there will be little or no mandatory public disclosure.
Originally much of NIAID was to come under the DHS umbrella; this
was blocked by Congressional Democrats, but could change during
the current legislative session.”
In his testimony before the Massachusetts committee, Mark Klem- pner, the provost for research at BUMC, who is slated to co-direct research at the new laboratory, was adamant that Boston University would not conduct any classified research and that “not one nickel has come from the Department of Homeland Security.”
Similar pronouncements in the course of seeking approval for other BSL4 labs have proved to be dubious. In his article Ho reported that, “Officials at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB) are quietly retreating from a pledge made in 2001 that their BSL4 facility will not conduct classified work.”
The prospect of constructing a laboratory that would conduct research on some of the most deadly biological agents known to humanity—including anthrax and tularemia—in a densely populated urban area, such as Boston, has met with stiff resistance from community activists, public health advocates, peace activists, and others.
Opponents have pointed out that the neighborhood immediately surrounding the proposed site of the lab is home to about 16,721 people per square mile, over four times as many people as the 3,478 per square mile who live in the immediate vicinity of the next most densely populated BSL4 neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia operated by the Center For Communicable Diseases. Lab opponents also charge that situating such a lab in an area that is predominantly Latino and African American is an act of environmental racism.
Opponents of the lab-regulating bill maintain that passage would preclude the construction of Boston University’s laboratory and would, as Klempner said in his testimony, “have an enormous chilling effect on biological research in this state.”
Responding to opposing testimony from the hearing, an aide from Representative Fox’s office pointed out via email that, “Cambridge has strict regulations on what type of biological agents can and cannot be studied. They have not suffered from these regulations and, in fact, are arguably the biotech capital of the world.”
According to records from the hearing, 115 people testified or wrote in favor of the bill and 45 testified or wrote against it. David Ozonoff, a professor of Environmental Health at Boston University, testified that the risk of an outbreak resulting from an accident or an act of terrorism is particularly worrisome because, “unlike chemicals,” biological agents “reproduce themselves and travel in social patterns.”
Long-time community activist Mel King, who attended the hearing, told Boston Indymedia he had come to support the legislation and he was “opposed to the building of a bioterror lab anywhere.” King was dismissive of BU’s PR friendly “humanitarian” rationale for constructing the laboratory—that it would enable scientists to do life saving research into emerging infectious diseases. “There are places in the world where, if conditions were changed, the problems would not be there. I am particularly talking about poverty. We have the capability to deal with this and we don’t need a bioterror lab, especially in an area that has the highest rate of morbidity of any area in the commonwealth,” King said.
Fox’s bill enjoys significant support, both among opponents of BU’s proposed lab and people who support the lab but believe that comprehensive state oversight into the goings on at high security biological laboratories might be prudent.
Klempner maintained that if the bill was passed, “We could not proceed with doing any development until the Department of Public Health and Department of Environmental Protection create a new set of redundant regulations. It would end federal funding for the project.” HR 1397 would provide regulations for the location, construction, operation, maintenance, and security at BSL4 labs. It would require reports regarding current research to regulatory agencies and mandate regular inspection of laboratories. Additionally, the bill would empower a community oversight board for any BSL4 laboratory built in the Commonwealth to help insure transparency of operations and research. The bill would also place a moratorium on the construction of BSL4 laboratories until the structures are in place to carry out state level regulation of the laboratory.
It was unclear whether the effect of this legislation would per- manently short circuit BU’s plans to construct its laboratory, but it was clear that the project was not the first thing on Fox’s mind during her testimony in front of the committee. “We are talking about regulations,” she said, “because we want to save lives.”
David Taber writes for Boston Indy-media and has been published in Zine- world, Up The Ante!, Z Magazine, and the Memphis Commercial Appeal .
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
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