Front and Center: Security at Boston's Infectious Disease Research Lab

When controversy hit, Kevin Tuohey became the public face of a high-profile plan to study deadly diseases in Boston. To succeed, the security director would have to become part diplomat, part great communicator.

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What he learned by listening made the project safer, Tuohey says. "We started with one risk to mitigate&mdash:a release from the building, the worst-case scenario," Tuohey says. "The neighborhood said, Fine. But how do these things get to and from the lab? On our streets. By our houses.' So we had to back up and look at transportation."

The team developed a far more detailed policy around transportation, including the use of GPS and arming drivers taking biologics to the lab with a duress alarm connected to the hospital, local police and the Centers for Disease Control. Eventually, Tuohey's one risk turned into five, all of which had full mitigation plans developed around them (see "Five Risks to Mitigate"). It was an attempt to erase that sense of inevitability that so outraged the community at the start.

A Political Animal

Tuohey is the son of American diplomats. He was born in 1961 in Frankfurt, and grew up in Vienna, Moscow, Bombay, Maryland, Berlin and, finally, Tel Aviv, where he graduated from high school. Then he came to Boston. He was 18. He wanted to be a cop, so he took criminal justice classes at Northeastern University and he also took a co-op with Boston University's security department as a security officer. At 19, he didn't want to be a cop anymore, but still finished his criminal justice credits. "My background really is political science, political theory and international relations."

Twenty-five years after taking a job at BU during college, he's still there. Behind his desk hangs ink sketches of pretty campus buildings. On the wall hangs a blueprint, the "Institutional Master Plan" for BioSquare, including the new lab site. On his desk one day last May sat a large jar of ibuprofen.

A couple of blocks from Tuohey's office, on Washington Street, Ken Olken and his wife will be able to watch construction of the Biosafety Level 4 lab from their sixth-floor apartment's window. Olken is a retired textiles worker. His daughter's family lives a block away. "In textiles, we handled powdered dyes," he says. "In many ways you control them the way you control airborne biologics, using negative air pressure."

Olken attended dozens of Tuohey's community meetings. Olken says he went originally out of curiosity, but kept attending to help himself form a decision on whether to support the biolab. He had two main questions: "First, what would be taking place there? I had heard a lot about weaponizing biologics. Then I wanted to know the mechanics of the systems that would be used to prevent this stuff from getting out."

Recalling the sessions, Olken says, "The medical staff that does the work is at the highest risk. [Who] they contact&mdash:their families, friends and neighbors, regardless of distance from the facility&mdash:are at the second highest risk. Then the neighborhood."

Olken sounds remarkably similar to Tuohey when, sitting at his desk with the ibuprofen, he laid out the risks the lab presented to various constituents. It was as if Olken had internalized what Tuohey had told him. "I found Kevin to be a very good communicator," Olken says. "He listened, and answered all my questions." Ultimately, Olken decided to support the lab.

Tuohey's meetings were so effective the concept was expanded. The medical center team set up a Biosafety Lab Advisory Group, comprising 20 neighborhood people, both supporters and opponents. He also held "office hours" to answer questions, and he says he continues to meet with 22 interested citizens groups in the South End. All told, he has held more than 250 meetings with more than 5,000 attendees.

Risk Plays Out in Public

Not everyone agreed with Olken. Many others who attended Tuohey's meetings remained steadfast opponents of the new lab. A Roxbury group called Safety Net was one of several community groups that had mobilized to stop the lab, which by April 2004 was called the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, or NEIDL, unfortunately pronounced "needle." Another group, called Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), used aggressive political tactics. "The strategy was to raise as much doubt at [NIAID] that this [lab] would be a hard facility to get built in Boston, because of the opposition," Penn Loh, ACE's executive director, told The Boston Globe Magazine. The group focused on what it suggested was an air of secrecy around the project. For example, the original proposal for the project was slow to be made public, and when it was, the RFP made available in April 2004 was redacted to block descriptions of research at the lab. ACE seized on this, writing on its website, "There will be secret research performed at the [NEIDL]." BU flatly denies this. Tuohey says it's "completely untrue" and that all research done there will go through public review. But in a sense it doesn't matter who's right. ACE made the suggestion, and rumors of secret research coming to the NEIDL persist to this day, which Tuohey still must defend against in presentations and community meetings.

Also by April 2004, a large contingent of Boston's academic community had allied itself with the community groups. Dr. David Ozonoff of BU's School of Public Health and professor Daniel Goodenough of Harvard Medical School were outspoken. Ozonoff called "the whole bioterrorism initiative" a "catastrophe" for public health. Goodenough accused BU of "environmental racism." "Putting something like this in the poor community with such a weak political voice, there's no question if this were in Brookline, Newton or Wellesley"&mdash:tony suburbs&mdash:"this wouldn't happen."

The activists sent an open letter to the mayor, city council and BU trustees opposing the biolab, signed by 165 academics, public health officials, and ACE. "High-level safety and security procedures will be installed," the letter conceded. "However, there can be no guarantees that there will be no accidents that might lead to the release of deadly, airborne pathogens through the failure of safety systems or when they are transported through city streets. The laboratory might also become a target for intentional acts of violence."

What's remarkable about this statement is that the risks cited come straight from Tuohey's list of five risks to mitigate. Tuohey, in defending the lab, would say the same exact thing.

The difference between supporters and opponents is their interpretation of these risks. Opponents said whatever benefit the lab might provide cannot outweigh the risks it presents to the community. Tuohey found himself defending the project from attacks and from information disseminated by an aggressive opponent, information that he believed was misleading. (By this time, BU Medical Center had launched BostonBiosafety.com as a counter to ACE's anti-lab campaign, and had begun advertising the project's benefits on subway trains.)

And the criticisms he's countering often go well beyond security and safety. So when opponents talk about the NEIDL being a biodefense project of little value or counterproductive to public health, it's Tuohey who brings up the threat of an avian flu outbreak and the need to research it at a facility like the NEIDL. When detractors suggest the NEIDL's siting is racist, it's Tuohey who says that the kind of redundancy in utilities, power generation and other critical infrastructures that the new facility will demand already exist there for the hospital.

And when opponents outline risks the NEIDL poses, it's

Tuohey who tells residents, politicians and the media that the opponents' statements are correct. But he would go on: "A release is a scary scenario. I understand that. I've never said there's no risk and I never will. But I can tell you we modeled that four times. We modeled dropping a test tube with more anthrax in it than we'll ever use. We modeled HEPA [particle filter] failures. After the community came to us with concerns, we looked at how the infectious agents would be transported to the lab. In all our tests, none created a risk to the health of the community. Individuals being infected? Yes, that's a risk. It's not likely but it's possible."

A month after ACE and the scientists sent their letter, two lab researchers counting bacteria colonies would unknowingly inhale live strains of F. tularensis and contract rabbit fever.

A Bad Report Card

The four-month investigation by the Boston Public Health Commission that followed the rabbit fever outbreak resulted in a

14-page report in March 2005. It said BU Medical Center was far from blameless. "Researchers noted the lack of use of personal protective equipment when counting [bacteria] colonies on an open bench," it said. And "despite stringent guidelines on receipt and storage of Select Agents, [BU] did not have a system of laboratory testing in place to verify that the organisms being used in research were those that had been requested."

Practices and safety measures in the Biosafety Level 2 lab were "inadequate" to prevent infection. BU should have reported the cases earlier and "should have had stronger procedures in place to monitor laboratory personnel," which may have prevented the third case of rabbit fever. The tularemia lab "failed to consistently utilize adequate precautions when handling and manipulating laboratory specimens." And finally: "The BU Institutional Biosafety Committee was not able to ensure compliance with appropriate laboratory protocols and procedures."

Opponents of the NEIDL took the momentum. They ticked off a litany of recent failures across the country with infectious agents, at labs and in the mail, culminating in the rabbit fever case. The opponents' new talking point was something like, If it can happen with tularemia, it can happen with anthrax. They filed a federal lawsuit (still pending) against the NIH to stop the project.

It didn't matter that the report also said that the rabbit fever cases posed no threat of infection to the community, or that a University of Nebraska lab errantly delivered Biosafety Level 3 live strains of F. tularensis instead of inert Biosafety Level 2 bacteria, or that, even if it was slow to connect the dots, BU Medical Center reported the cases days after it had connected them.

Tuohey called the assault on BU's credibility unfair. He countered, partly by acknowledging the failures and communicating what's being done about them. "What happened wouldn't have happened in a Biosafety Level 3 or Biosafety Level 4 because of safety features in those kinds of labs," which are more stringent than in the lab where this occurred, he says.

But, he adds, "it's a controls issue. A procurement issue. A very important lesson about what comes in the mail, and trust. We've applied new controls across campus. We test every agent that comes in to make sure it is what it says it is. We have unannounced inspections," and third parties look at lab procedures.

This is a tricky communications job Tuohey pulled off, at once saying it's an unfair assault, but also that what happened caused policy changes. Even opponents of the lab acknowledged his capability. "He strikes me as a guy who believes in this and is totally sincere," says Goodenough. "He's definitely knowledgeable and he's definitely following all of the rules and guidelines [for safety and security] to a T. He's careful. But what he does not acknowledge is human error. I'd love to sit with him and say, Don't you think they had the same checks and counterchecks on [space shuttle] Columbia? Isn't there room for error, and if so, why are we taking this chance?"

A Quiet Ground Breaking

After a long environmental review, federal officials approved the NEIDL and its system of safeguards at the start of this year. Tuohey succeeded. But there would be no ground-breaking ceremony.

In April, the Biosafety Level 4 site was a parking lot; by May, that was being ripped up. A dozen or more trucks and cranes filled the site. Steel pilings stuck up in a few spots.

Walking to the site, Tuohey announces "what an opportunity for the city this lab is." He crows about the estimated 660 jobs it will bring and the economic benefit, including affordable housing and job training programs, and mentions the need for an avian flu vaccine. After acknowledging a short-lived student sit-in protesting the NEIDL at the dean's office, he adds, "Frankly we get fewer and fewer questions about the biolab and more about development on Mass. Ave.," an important nearby thoroughfare.

Goodenough called Tuohey "careful." Another word for careful is politic, and through the meetings, defending the project, dealing with a nasty information war, and finally, doing damage control after a potentially debilitating gaffe, Tuohey has evolved into a kind of political creature. He is a partisan for the lab interacting with his constituents. He talks about being part of the neighborhood and how that means he cares. Though once he had no hometown, he's now worked and lived here for a quarter century and he says that his entrenchment helps him fulfill his role. "I have more breadth here than people"&mdash:he makes a tunnel with his hands and holds it up to his eyes&mdash:"who are responsible just for security."

He means this literally. After the tularemia episode died down, and it was clear that the Biosafety Level 4 Biolab project would break ground, BU Medical Center reorganized. Corporate communications and community relations now report to Tuohey. ##

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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