Iris Scans And Spacesuits: Inside The BU Biolab

By Toni Waterman

Jan. 11, 2012


BOSTON — One of the first things you’ll notice about the highly controversial Boston University National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories... a.k.a. the biolab... is that it’s hard to get into. Park in a back lot, go through a security checkpoint, pass along a guarded walkway and then you’re at the front door — where the real screening starts. Security at the seven-story glass-and-stone building is tight, something longtime biolab supporter mayor Tom Menino likes to stress.
"It’s probably the most secure lab I’ve been in. They’ve done a good job here," he tells city councilors, community leaders and reporters on a Jan. 10 tour.
The $200 million building is designed for research on some of the world’s most deadly diseases, such as Ebola hemorrhagic fever and plague. Both have mortality rates up to 90 percent. That's why the building has remained virtually vacant for years, tangled in a web of permitting and complaints over its location.
Menino justifies the decision thus: "People say to me — why an urban area? Well, we’re close to our 27 hospitals so we can share that research. We don’t want it in Timbuktu…. All precautions have been taken as we built this lab."
A space shuttle environment in a Boston building

As the mayor leads attendees through the facility, those precautions are in your face. Literally: You need an iris scan to go practically anywhere. Biolab director Dr. John Murphy says there’s technology to prevent people from slipping into the lab behind someone else: If more than one person goes through, an alarm goes off.
Once inside, workers have safeguards. Dr. Ron Corley, the biolab’s associate director, says people working with the most dangerous agents will be outfitted in $2,600 spacesuits that are fed sterilized air via a red-coiled tube that hangs from the ceiling. "Seal the suit up and you’re in the suit environment," he says.
Every time researchers enter a Level 4 lab they’ll have to take a seven-minute chemical shower to sterilize their suit. And they’ll need to take a regular shower every time they exit. Which makes you wonder…   
"If you need to go to the restroom there’s no place inside the lab," Corley acknowledges, laughing. "And… at some point you get thirsty. So that limits the number of hours people can be in the spacesuits."
As for the public’s safety, a negative airflow system is constantly sucking air into the lab so if a hazardous airborne agent did get on the loose, Corley says it wouldn’t be able to escape. As an added precaution, everything has a backup system — even the backup systems. "Whatever the requirements is, there’s one extra for it," Corley says.

Menino's cost-benefit analysis
Still, there’s no such thing as no-risk. Is the payoff worth it? Boston University says the labs could bring in tens of millions of dollars in research grants annually and create close to 680 new jobs, 300 of which will be high-paying research positions.
Menino likes the prospect.
"Just think about the lives we can save and the research we can find in this building and the talent this lab will bring to the state and city," he says.
But that may still be a ways in the future. While the facility has been granted permission to begin low-level research, a decision on the more hazardous diseases might not come until the end of February. If approval is granted, it will take at least another six months before the labs are open for that research. 

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