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National Academies' Report on Boston BSL-4 Laboratory

By Gigi Kwik Gronvall, Ph.D., November 30, 2007

Yesterday, a National Research Council (NRC) committee deemed an NIH risk analysis for a proposed biocontainment laboratory at Boston University to be “not sound and credible.”1 The National Research Council, the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, reviewed the NIH  report (Draft Supplementary Risk Assessments and Site Suitability Analysis for the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, Boston University or DSER) at the request of the State of Massachusetts. The state plans to submit the NRC Committee’s letter report to NIH during the public comment period for the DSER.

The DSER was prepared by NIH at the request of a judicial decision. The DSER contains a risk analysis for siting a high containment (BSL-3 and 4) biological laboratory in one of three specific locations (rural, suburban, and urban). Four different disease agent release scenarios were modeled: monkeypox virus, Ebola virus, Sabia virus, and Rift Valley fever virus. With the exception of  the rural location, where ruminants may become a reservoir for Rift Valley fever virus-carrying mosquitoes in the event of a release, the DSER concludes that there is no difference in risk for siting the laboratory in any of the three locations.

In its task to evaluate the DSER for technical merit, the NRC Committee was not asked to independently evaluate the risks of the laboratory, and was not asked to determine whether the proposed laboratory posed a threat to public health. However, the Committee found the DSER scientifically lacking for a number of reasons, including:

  • Agent selection in DSER ‘worst case scenarios’: “The DSER would have been more useful in supporting decision-making had it considered candidate infectious agents that have the potential to lead to large infection rates in an exposed human population.” In addition, the Committee thought that a vector-borne agent with more likely urban reservoirs, such as rodents or insects, should have been selected for modeling.

  • Modeling of ‘worst case scenarios’: The modeling in the DSER did not appear to have been appropriately validated by comparison with other disease models, and it did not include a sensitivity analysis to reveal the effect of variations in transmission rates. There was a lack of information in the DSER about the modeling input data, assumptions, and how the model worked, so that the Committee could not determine whether there was a greater risk to public health and safety from the location of the facility in one or another proposed location.

In addition, the Committee found that the DSER did not adequately consider environmental justice issues, such as the health status of the people living in the community surrounding the laboratory and their access to medical care and health services. The proposed location in Boston has been controversial, in part because the laboratory would be situated in a low-income, predominantly minority community.

In its press release, the NIH indicates that it “appreciates the thoughtful and rigorous scientific review of this draft document by the NRC Committee and will consider their comments along with all others received from the Boston community and elsewhere.”

The NRC report is narrowly focused on the technical aspects of the DSER, which concerns only one lab in Boston. However, the Committee also criticized the NIH for their communication of risks in the report, noting that statements in the DSER that risks are “negligible” or “vastly overstated” can appear unfounded and dismissive of public concerns. For high-containment laboratories to operate, and for critical biodefense research to be accomplished, these labs will need the support and trust of their neighboring communities. A serious consideration of public concerns by the laboratories as well as the funding agencies is needed, to foster trust that the laboratories will be operated safely.2


  1. Input on the NIH's Draft Supplementary Risk Assessments And Site Suitability Analyses for the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, Boston University, November 29, 2007. Accessed November 30, 2007.

  2. High-Containment Biodefense Research Laboratories: Meeting Report and Center Recommendations. Available at /publications/2007_orig-articles /2007-04-04-highcontainmentbioresearchlab.html. Accessed November 30, 2007.