January 19, 2005

Council for Responsible Genetics
5 Upland Road, Suite 3
Cambridge, MA 02140
Contact: Sujatha Byravan, PhD (617-868-0870)

BOSTON, MA—Officials from Boston University (BU) and the Boston Public Health Commission have announced that three BU researchers were infected with tularemia—a dangerous pathogen that is considered to be a potential bioterrorism agent—as a result of two separate laboratory mishaps in May and September of last year. Although the university identified tularemia as the cause of the three illnesses as early as September, public officials who were informed decided not to publicly discuss the cases until yesterday, two months after a series of public hearings and environmental impact reviews, and one week after the approval of the proposed biocontainment lab by the city’s Zoning Commission.

The growing controversy highlights many of the reasons why the Council for Responsible Genetics, Alternatives for Community and the Environment, the Conservation Law Foundation, and other organizations have opposed the creation of a high-security bioterrorism research center at the BU Medical Campus.

“The handling of these cases gives the public every reason to distrust BU Medical Center,” said Sujatha Byravan, Executive Director of the Council for Responsible Genetics. “BU and city officials have made clear that the public won’t be informed of infections and other accidents at its biodefense labs.”

BU officials claim that the cases, which occurred in a Biosafety Level 2 laboratory, are irrelevant to the debate over the proposed construction of a $128 million Biosafety Level 3 and 4 facility at BU Medical Center. Higher biosafety levels involve more stringent safety practices and protective equipment for handling of biological materials.

But, says Byravan, no facility can guarantee safety. “We all know that BL 3 and 4 laboratories have different guidelines. But accidents like these ones can happen anywhere when researchers knowingly or inadvertently violate the rules.” University officials acknowledged that BU researchers ignored policies requiring tularemia to be handled in an enclosed space using air filtration. “Human errors are inevitable,” notes Byravan.

The Council for Responsible Genetics has documented over a dozen similar accidents and security breaches at Biosafety Level 3 and 4 facilities around the country. Its report, entitled “Mistakes Happen: Accidents and Security Breaches at Biocontainment Laboratories,” is available online athttp://www.gene-watch.org/bubiodefense/pages/accidents.html.

Yesterday's announcement has renewed pressure on city and state officials to pass measures to protect Boston from the potential risks posed by high-security research. City Councilor Chuck Turner recently introduced an ordinance that would ban BL 4 facilities in Boston and State Representative Gloria Fox has announced plans to introduce a bill that will create new, stringent health and safety regulations over BL 4 research. CRG hopes that the tularemia cases will persuade elected officials to quickly act on these important proposals.

GeneWatch: Current Issue
Lobbying and propaganda around gene drive technologies threaten to erode public trust in science. By Christophe Bo√ęte
Review of the film A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics and the American Dream. By Jaydee Hanson
Book review: Making Sense of Genes by Kostas Kampourakis. By Stuart A. Newman
GeneWatch: Archives