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Outbreaks and Safety Concerns in Biodefense
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
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
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
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
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
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 jobs150
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
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
campusin 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
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
Submitted by: Melody Parsa, 2004 intern