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The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories is a seven-story concrete fortress in Boston’s South End, hemmed in by Interstate 93 on one side and Boston University’s medical school on another. Unmarked by overt signs or logos, NEIDL — known as “needle” — is surrounded by a vast manicured lawn that would make for an excellent picnic spot, but for the high-spired steel fence and the constant surveillance by a police force stationed at nearby checkpoints. The safeguards ensure that passers-by will keep out. Yet almost everything else about the lab — its layout, its operations, its work protocols — is in service to an opposing imperative: keeping dangerous things, and especially very deadly things, in.
The building has one of the larger collections of Biosafety Level 4 and Biosafety Level 3 labs in the world. These kinds of facilities are where research on the planet’s most threatening pathogens takes place. Ebola, Lassa, Marburg viruses: All are designated for Level 4 work by the National Institutes of Health, meaning they are both transmissible and highly pathogenic, with few (or no) treatments for those who become infected with them. The pathogens studied in a Level 3 lab, like Mycobacterium tuberculosis or SARS-CoV-1, the predecessor to the novel coronavirus responsible for Covid-19, are slightly less lethal but still dangerous; the risks in this level of lab remain significant, but the safety level is a notch lower.