The current Ebola outbreak has added urgency to research into the deadly disease — and it’s put a spotlight on Boston University’s controversial biolab in the South End. Activists have called the lab a danger to the neighborhood — but after years of delays, researchers there could soon be taking critical steps toward advancing our understanding of Ebola.
The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory has been 11 years in the making. Constructed by BU in 2008, the gleaming building still sits largely empty on a corner of the school’s South End medical campus. Inside, Director Ron Corley shows me where he’s hoping researchers can study Ebola and viruses like it.
“This building is made up of a variety of different types of people," Corley said. "Some of whom have access to administrative spaces, bio-safety level 2, and then we’ve got the bio-safety level 3 and 4.”
Level 4 indicates a lab designed to handle the deadliest known pathogens — and that requires serious security. Corley brings his eyes close to a monitor by a door. It scans his irises.
“Now you can go through," he said. "Proximity card reader, iris scan reader, as you move between spaces here.”
The lab is already permitted to handle level 2 pathogens — bugs like measles and meningitis for which vaccinations and treatments already exist.
“What you’re looking out on are a series of biosafety cabinets, incubators, refrigerators, centrifuges, that are used to process cells or infected cells in biosafety level 2," Corley said. "These biosafety cabinets are considered primary containment. You never actually work with a pathogen on an open bench."
We continue down a sterile white hallway and an elevator to the empty level-4 labs. The walls are thick concrete and glass. It’s not a place for the claustrophobic. We go through a locker room, through a shower stall, to a room full of blue rubber suits with red air hoses. Working in here would be like scuba diving.
"Not exactly a luxury spa facility," Corley said.
It’s like a science fiction movie.
"A person that’s inside this lab is wearing a fully encapsulating suit, here the air comes from compressors on the roof above and they’re pumped through these red lines," Corley said.
But there’s no actual work to do. BU is still waiting for the level-4 permit needed to handle Ebola. Until then, they’re unable to study the Ebola virus directly — at a time when it’s needed most. But the promise of new treatments for the deadly disease is no consolation for Klare Allen. The Roxbury activist is behind a federal lawsuit seeking to block the biolab – calling it a danger to the neighborhood.
“We still feel that the risk assessment is adequate but we don’t feel as though that we’re safe and we don’t feel BU has enough knowledge to do this type of research,” Allen said.
Allen is concerned about an accidental release of pathogens and says there are already enough Level 4 facilities in the United States.
"There are 10 to 17 of these labs that already exist and so we’re not understanding why one more would make a difference," Allen said. "As you see what’s happening with Ebola, there are several universities with Level 4 labs that are handling the situation.”
BU is expecting the CDC and Boston Public Health Commission to approve its level-4 permit in 2015 – only then, researchers say, can they start making real headway against Ebola.
Biolab Director Dr. Ron Corley talks about the kind of research he hopes to do there once the level-4 permit is approved: