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Outbreaks and Safety Concerns in Biodefense Research

An Interview with Dr. Ellen Berlin

Ellen Berlin is Director of Corporate Communications at Boston University Medical Center. In this position she oversees all internal and external communications activities for the hospital, which include media relations, internal communications, publications services and coordinating special events.

Ms. Berlin has extensive experience in public relations, special events and media relations. She has worked for a variety of public affairs consulting firms in Washington, DC. In 1992 she worked on the Clinton/Gore presidential campaign setting up campaign events across the country. Ms. Berlin served in the Clinton Administration as the Associate Director of Media Relations and Special Projects at the U.S. Department of Transportation and as the Director of Public and Consumer Affairs at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Ellen Berlin has a degree in public communication from The American University in Washington, DC and a Masters in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Carla Richards is Director of Community Relations at Boston University Medical Center. Over the past fifteen years, Ms. Richards has worked with private and non-profit organizations in Boston and across the country to assist them in their efforts at organizational capacity building, strategic planning and with development, implementation and evaluation of large-scale, public-private partnership initiatives. A research analyst and evaluation specialist with academic and professional training from the University of Chicago, Ms. Richards arrived in Boston four years ago to serve as the Transition Manager for the first-year start-up of the Boston Empowerment Zone, a 10-year, $100 million dollar effort to revitalize target neighborhoods in the City of Boston.

Prior to arriving in Boston, Ms. Richards was a member of a national evaluation team funded by the Ford Foundation and based at Chapin Hall's Center for Children at the University of Chicago, to evaluate the impact and outcomes of comprehensive community building initiatives ("CCI) across the country. She also worked on behalf of the Casey Foundation to assist with identifying key implementation issues related to programming for immigrants and refugees in the new economy and served as Co-Director for a project funded by BankAmerica to evaluate the outcomes of that institution's 10-year targeted investment into a Westside Chicago Neighborhood.

Since arriving in Boston, following her work with the Boston Empowerment Zone, Ms. Richards worked at Jobs for the Future where on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, she managed a project and co-authored a report aimed at engaging the private sector in public workforce development efforts. And more recently in 2002, Carla Richards served as Chief of Staff for Massachusetts State Senator Dianne Wilkerson (D-Boston) where she was liaison to state and local officials, agencies, the media and constituents.

What is the number one reason you believe Biodefense research is necessary and needs to be expanded in the United States?

Berlin: There is no single or primary reason we believe Biodefense research is a necessity. However, if you look at NIAID's 2002 Blue Ribbon program, it concludes that in order to increase knowledge and provide cures, the number of BSL-4 labs around the country needs to increase in order to be able to effectively research infectious diseases.

Richards: There is not one single reason but in regards to our nation today and the current state of affairs, the research is important for public health concerns.

What has been the most difficult aspect in putting the plans for biocontainment labs in motion?

Berlin: The difficulty of this program compared to others we have instigated and directed over the years has been the complexity of the topic of biodefense and the frightening nature of the issue. The problem really is that the nature of this issue cannot simply be reduced to slogans and other simple answers. It is much more in-depth.

Richards: It certainly has not been as easy as other projects.

Are public concerns and fears about high-level biocontainment labs legitimate? How can they be addressed?

Berlin: The public's concerns are absolutely legitimate. These are scary times we are living in, and it is very understandable why the community has concerns.

Richards: We continue to find ways either through media, television, face to face contact, and community gatherings to get the relevance of the project.

Berlin: We have sat in over 70 community meetings. Overall, we believe that this lab in Boston is absolutely safe, and it will help save lives.

Are citizens in the hosting community at an advantage or disadvantage for having such labs placed in their hometown?

Berlin: It will certainly be beneficial to the city of Boston. It will create 1,300 construction jobs, and 660 permanent jobs—150 of those will be scientists/PhD jobs, and of course there will be other positions such as custodial and administrative.

Richards: It will be a positive economic engine for the city, and as a result have a good ripple effect, causing people to want to move here for jobs, education purposes and also bring more businesses to the area.

Berlin: We will also be using "Linkage Dollars," which are given to the University and go back to the city, and we estimate funds and investments of $2.9 billion overall to be used in such things as job training. I should also mention that it is a very resourceful tool for first aid and emergency personnel to have close access to such labs in the case of bioterrorism, so they can immediately be treated.

How much information will the general public know about the activities taking place in such labs?

Berlin: There will not be any classified or "secret" research taking place in the labs. We recently released a letter informing the public of the intentions of the lab, and their right to inquire about activities within the labs.

Should BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs be restricted to extremely isolated sites as some recommend? Why or why not?

Berlin: We already have existing research and infrastructure on campus—in the Biomedical Research Park with BSL-2 and 3 labs that have been safe and successful. And we believe that since we already have these labs in place we are familiar with, and capable of extending our program to a higher biosafety lab level. Also, we have academia partners in the region that have been and can continue utilizing the facilities to advance their research, that they would not be able to access otherwise if the labs were in an isolated town.

It is argued that the pathogens being studied in high-level biocontainment labs are solely for defense purposes. Is it realistic to assume they can also be used for offensive methods in the United States as many fear?

Berlin and Richards: No, absolutely not.

Berlin: The research at these facilities is for the purpose of diagnostic treatment and vaccines, not anything else. They find cures, not weapons.

Submitted by:
Melody Parsa, 2004 intern