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Statement on the Biolab by Prof. David Ozonoff

Statement for Members of the Boston City Council

April 16, 2014
David Ozonoff, MD, MPH
Professor of Environmental Health
Boston University School of Public Health
My name is David Ozonoff. I am a licensed physician, a Professor of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health, and founding Chair and now Chair Emeritus of the Schools’ Department of Environmental Health. I regret that personal reasons prevent me from making this statement to you in person, but the matter is very important and I wanted to make my views available to you as you deliberate this question.
I am a research scientist whose office is on the Boston University Medical Center campus. I can see the NEIDL from my office window. I first became aware of plans for such a laboratory when BU was making an application to NIH for a contract to build and manage the lab on our campus. I have been very active in writing about the science of emerging infectious diseases (I am an epidemiologist) I had no role in the planning of the lab or applying for it. I was asked early on by Dr. Mark Klempner, via a phone call, if I supported the idea of a public health oriented science facility to research important infectious diseases and I said I was. I subsequently appeared at a community meeting Dr. Klempner organized and publicly spoke in support of the lab. Shortly after, scientist colleagues of mine concerned about the lab asked to meet with me and there showed me NIH’s Request for Application (RFA) outlining the purpose and general outlines of the proposed facility. Reading this background material made clear to me that the intent and rationale for this laboratory was not public health. It was clearly part of what has come to be called “the biodefense enterprise” of the US Government. I am of the opinion that this enterprise is harmful to public health and makes us less safe, not more safe. From that point onward I became an outspoken opponent of that effort at my own institution, and I remain so today.
Researchers planning to use the lab disavow any intention of weapons work. I take them
at their word. But their word is not enough, given what we now know. First, my reading of the RFA makes the NEIDL both a regional facility (available to non-BU academics) and also makes the facilities available (perhaps even requires access) to other government agencies, not excluding the military and intelligence communities. BU would have no control over other entities. Nor does thes University have a policy against pursuing classified research, research which by definition we would not be told about. Statements to the contrary may be made in good faith, but the recent examples of NSA activities makes abundantly clear we cannot take such declarations for granted, even when made by the highest official of the US government. This is a serious, although no insoluble problem. I will suggest a remedy shortly.
Second, biodefense work, even when literally “defensive” (and the line between offensive and defensive is often unclear) is more likely to make us less safe than more safe. Novel pathogens are very unlikely weapons of terror by non-state actors (and no state-actor would use such ineffective weapons for military purposes) for two reasons. The first is that making a novel pathogen is technically very difficult. A terrorist would need years of training and even then have to perform difficult experiments that would take years and have small chance of uncertain success, as well as being uncontrollable. The second reason is connected with the first. Terrorism is usually done with readily available means and readily accessible “soft targets.” There is only one conceivable scenario where a terrorist would use a novel or unusual pathogen and that is if someone were obliging enough to provide one because they made it (say because they wanted to develop a vaccine against it or a drug to treat it or a sensor to detect it) or had a rare agent on hand for research purposes. That’s what a biodefense research agenda at the NEIDL would make possible.
We are all well aware that the external face the NEIDL (even its name) presents is not that of a biodefense facility but of a public health facility to provide cures for emerging infectious diseases. I am not inclined to take this on trust. If this is truly the case the NEIDL should institute an effective and meaningful oversight apparatus that has at least two aspects (and probably should be implemented by two independent committees, although that is a detail to be worked out).
The first is a community-based safety committee with real teeth whose job it is to monitor any safety problems (accidents, spills, lab infections, environmental malfunctions, etc.) in close to real-time (e.g., weekly). By “real teeth” I mean the authority to stop the operations of the lab if they feel this is warranted on the basis of the information. I am not talking about a handpicked rubberstamp committee, as too often happens with other oversight committees.
The second is a periodic review of all ongoing research by independent laboratory and public health professionals to ensure that the science being conducted at the lab is not what I would call “scientific pornography,” that is, science that violates the standards of public health by having as an object human harm, not the furtherance of human health. This would include “dual use” research. As a rebuttable presumption, it would also prohibit
Gain of Function (GOF) research. For the record, I am not an opponent of such research but I believe it should be carried out in only or possibly two laboratories in the world and everything should be displayed publicly and immediately. This is a complicated issue and in any event, should not be part of the discussion of the NEIDL. GOF research should never be done there.
There is much more to be said about my concerns about the NEIDL but this is not the time or place for anything but the most important of them. I hope the City Council will take my views into account in their deliberations.
Thank you for your time.
David Ozonoff, MD, MPH Professor of Public Health
Boston University School of Public Health
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