Okay, it isn’t as bad as all that, but the post-9/11 world keeps looking more and more like the end-of-the world flicks with creepy Big Brother keeping track of you with a microchip planted into your hand. (Oh, right, that’s called a smart phone.) I, myself, am about to strap on a rocket bra and start driving a tank around.
But all fantasies of being Tank Girl put aside, we are living in dangerous times. I am sure that every generation thinks this, but then, they are always right until the next one comes along: These are the end days. Except it’s not because of some deity whose wrath is a time bomb; it’s our own free will and freakish inventions that got us this far.
On Monday night, Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey held a (another) public hearing at the Cathedral Housing Development in South Boston to discuss the implementation of a Biosafety Level 4 at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories Facility, which would allow researchers to conduct experiments on dangerous pathogens like anthrax, SARS and Ebola in one of the most densely populated areas of Boston.
Representatives from BU, the Boston Fire Department, and the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) plead their cases for the importance of such research and the precautions that have been and would be put in place; that such a lab isn’t actually that dangerous, and that the rewards that were involved that outweighed the risks.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the public replied: “No.”
“No” was what they said ten years ago when plans for the BU Biolab were introduced, and “no” has been the response at every public hearing that has been called on the subject. Supporters of the BU Biolab will never stop trying; the lucrative prospects the lab holds (defense contracts, for example) are worth the time it takes to attend a meeting for two hours (but probably less, since most pro-lab speakers left this hearing before the public testimony).
Dr. Anita Barry, director of communicable disease control for the BPHC condescended to explain to the public that diseases like the flu are bad and kill people, and that research on these diseases helps find cures—and cures are good! When asked about the preventative measures involved in such dangerous research, she shot her PR gun.
She responded, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘dangerous research.’”
The same tactic was pulled by Ara Tahmassian, the vice president of Research Compliance at BU. When he was asked by Councilor Yancey what was the most dangerous pathogen to be studied at the lab, Tahmassian asked him to clarify what was meant by “dangerous pathogen.”
“Most of these agents do not transmit easily,” said Tahmassian. “Seasonal influenza is the most contagious, but I must defer to a flu expert.”
Unfortunately for Tahmassian and Barry, their side-stepping statements and impressive credentials were not enough to quell the anger of the public, who had brought in their own experts. From a retired RN with 48 years of experience in the healthcare industry, to a Boston Medical Center employee since 1972, right down to a woman trained in epidemiology, they were not only capable and qualified to pass judgment on this type of research, but also able to explain the dangers inherent in the physiology of these pathogens.
One disgruntled individual can take a pathogen in a drop of liquid, drop it on a piece of paper, stuff it in his or her pocket and then send it off to anywhere in the world he or she pleases.
Councilor Yancey said that he has yet to have any of the pro-biolab organizations provide him with sufficient protocol as to what would happen should an accident occur and the outside be exposed to these pathogens. And what’s worse is that BU doesn’t have a pristine record when it comes to contamination. In 2004, three researchers in BU’s labs were infected with tularemia, a bacterial infection that causes pneumonia but that is not contagious from person to person. Not only was BU unable to determine the exact cause of the exposure (Tahmassian said at the hearing that the theory that a researcher removed protection to itch his or her face was “the closest they ever got.”), but BU also delayed alerting health officials to the infection of the three staff members by almost two weeks.
“BU is an institution about money, I am sorry to say,” testified Rachel Atcheson, a BU undergrad. “I am seeing everyone against this lab except for the people who want money for BU.”
If Boston University is a business, and it’s shareholders are its students who pay tuition, then they have a pretty good thing going for them. Over the course of four years, each student has to somehow come up with almost a quarter of a million dollars, and all BU has to do is provide a shiny campus with a Starbucks (or three) and lots of student activities (funded partially by your undergraduate fee) to keep most of its 30,00 undergrads happy enough to stay quiet until they graduate and move out.
The reason why liberal arts college can plan to open a BSL-4 lab in one of the most densely populated areas of the city is because they are doing it off campus, and out of the temporary backyards of the largely apathetic students living their (and, more importantly, their parents).
This way, tour guides can talk to prospective students about the great research BU is doing on communicable diseases without actually raising the questions that come with sending your kid to school to live next to the 1918 Spanish flu (which, by the way, killed one-fifth of the world’s population).
Instead, the lab is located in an area of South Boston where there is a dense population of minorities as well as public housing, which provides assistance to lower-income and disabled residents. In a move that is blatantly racists and classist, these are the people who would be forced to be the most vulnerable should an accident happen and pathogens be released.
“Let’s cut through the crap,” said one wheelchair-bound resident. “If an accident happens, we’re dead.”
“Boston has an international airport and an international harbor. Anything could be here in a matter of hours,” said Dr. Barry of the BPHC of the risks of having such pathogens within the city. She also dismissed the dangers of having the lab in densely populated areas, since “people in less populated areas must go out and about as well.”
So, following Barry’s logic, because dangerous, incurable pathogens could be imminently at our doorstep, we might as well put them there in a way we can “control” them. This kind of thinking is terrific for scaring a community into doing what you want them to do. BU will profit off the fear of these residents, and it will be a profit—as long as the government keeps believing in the need to prevent (or possibly, engineer) biological weapons.
Said one resident, “This is to be a bioterror lab. That’s how the atomic bomb was created, and now something we build has the world living in fear.”
They’re trying to build a new atom bomb, except in the movies about this catastrophe, there won’t be a big red button; there won’t be a long monologue about ethical dilemma; and it won’t be terrorism or democracy to win or lose. It will be us against them: the humans and the pathogens.