LETTER: Watertown Biosafety Committee Consultant Addresses Questions

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Dear Linda,

Thank you for your letter and questions regarding the Watertown Biosafety Committee (WBSC). I consult for the Watertown Board of Health/WBSC, serve as the designee by the director of Public Health and would like to clarify some of the points you raised and answer your questions.

The Biotechnology regulations were enacted to protect Watertown residents by mandating companies performing specific types of work to meet certain requirements. These regulations were developed based on regulations from surrounding communities, but in some aspects are stricter than some of our neighboring communities. For example, Watertown requires a permit for companies performing most work under Biosafety level 2 (BSL2) regardless of whether the work involves synthetic or recombinant DNA (rDNA) which is not true of all municipalities in the greater Boston area. Additionally, Biosafety level 4 (BSL4) work such as what is done at NEIDL is not permitted in Watertown. BSL4 work includes research on materials that could easily be transmitted in the air within the laboratory and cause severe to fatal disease in humans for which there are no available vaccines or treatments (eg Ebola virus, Monkeypox virus).

Part of the permitting process involves mandating that companies form an institutional biosafety committee, known as an IBC. The IBC is based on what is required by the NIH for research with rDNA and must include a member that can represent community interests (the community member). It is a requirement that the community member (not a sponsor) works in Watertown or lives in a neighborhood abutting Watertown (hence West Cambridge, not East Cambridge qualifies).

The primary role of the IBC is to review the work (protocols) and approve procedures to ensure the work is conducted safely. This includes discussion of training requirements for staff, required personal protective equipment (eg lab coat, gloves, safety goggles), work equipment (eg a biosafety cabinet, centrifuges with capped rotors) required for work with various organisms as well as the inactivation and disinfection practices required before disposal. While the WBSC does not participate on the IBC to directly instruct on a particular safety process, we do review the minutes of IBC meetings and require companies to conduct them annually. Based on IBC meeting minutes submitted to us, the WBSC has confidence that no “toxic or diseased products” are sitting in public areas because we are aware of what concentrations of bleach or other disinfectants are used to decontaminate all materials before they are taken to common areas for disposal.

The Watertown regulation also requires all companies to submit manuals for their Emergency Action Plan, Biosafety Plan and Chemical Hygiene Plan and these are reviewed by the WBSC as part of the permitting process. Many companies utilize safety consultant companies to help develop their safety plans and yes, sometimes they forget to update various aspects of their safety plans when they move from Cambridge to Watertown. That being said, the ability of the WBSC committee members to identify where updates were missed (in 150+ page safety manuals) highlights how detail-oriented committee members are in ensuring that these documents are updated and appropriate prior to work being conducted in Watertown.

As to your question about whether we are gatekeepers or coaches, the committee is here to ensure that work is going to be conducted safely and follow the Watertown biosafety regulations. There are multiple instances where companies have submitted applications for a “low-risk” registration and the WBSC has required resubmission for the work under a permit. In most instances these conversations happen before the WBSC meeting in order to facilitate a streamlined approval process. As a reminder, decisions about where laboratory spaces are permitted in Watertown is outside the purview of the WBSC and is handled by the zoning board.

In addition to the documents mentioned earlier, the WBSC requires multiple materials to be submitted for a permit, including a detailed list of all agents/organisms used with their biosafety levels, an occupational health contract for all company employees, liability insurance to protect the City of Watertown, a pest control contract, floor plans, security information, safety training and frequency and more.

We encourage all members of the public to attend WBSC meetings and strive for an open and transparent process. Additionally, my email is available on the WBSC website and I am happy to answer additional questions about the permitting/registration process.

Mia Lieberman, DVM, PhD, DACLAM
Watertown Biosafety Committee Consultant

4 thoughts on “LETTER: Watertown Biosafety Committee Consultant Addresses Questions

  1. Thank you Ms. Lieberman, for your explanation. It goes quite a long way to help demystify this process. Am I to assume that with your open public meeting invitation, that future meetings, as well as being publicized on the City site with an agenda, will be held for all of the businesses applying?
    Also, that in the future, these meetings will be recorded and left on the City site for members of the community who are not available at meeting time to watch, and if necessary, reach you for more clarification?
    This is new to most of us in this community, and any way that we can get to know our new (and many) corporate neighbors, hopefully, will make the community more comfortable.
    I invite all concerned citizens to view these meetings and take Ms. Lieberman up on her offer. Transparency is key on this issue.

    • The agenda’s of the WBSC are always posted at least 48 hours prior to the meeting and have been since it first started meeting in Nov/Dec 2020. These monthly meetings have always been open to the public and have always included a public forum at the start for public comment. The WBSC is subject to open meeting law and has operated accordingly. I think since that first meeting there has only been 1-2 months without a WBSC meeting.

      The applying businesses are also always on the Board of Health Agenda at least 48 hours before they go before the Board of Health for final approval, and have been since Nov/Dec 2020. The Board of Health is the permitting authority.

      WBSC meetings are recorded by the Health dept. The Health Dept has the recordings and I encourage you to ask them about how to view them or how to have them added to the Cable Access Channel. You can view many of the Board of Health meetings on Cable Access discussing the applicants and permits. I believe the current Chair of the WBSC presented an update on the WBSC’s work at last months public Board of Health meeting – so that is a great place for people new to the process to start.

      You can also find more info here:

      Finally, Dr. Lieberman and myself were involved in much of the drafting of the regulation starting back in winter of 2018 and we always encouraged our fellow Watertown Residents to come to those Board of Health meetings and eventually to attend the WBSC meetings as well. I agree it would be wonderful to have more residents attend meetings and educate themselves on the regulation, the WBSC scope, the process, and additional avenues to address their concerns (i.e. zoning)

      Heather McManus (Former Board of Health Designee to the WBSC and former Chair of the WBSC from Nov 2020 – March 2022)

  2. Dear Ms. McManus,
    Great! More good information! This part of your letter, however, is a bit puzzling:
    “WBC meetings are recorded by the Health Department. The Health Department has the recordings, and I encourage you to ask them about how to view them…”
    I think that I just did that with Ms. Lieberman. I might add, anything that a citizen has to make a special call about to see how to view, is not easily accessible to the public as, for instance, the City Council meetings are. I just checked again this morning, and the recording of the October 6th meeting is still not available on the City website.
    So, I’ll request again: Please have recordings of these meetings accessible to the public in the formats that they are accustomed to using: on the City website under “meetings” and on Cable Access.
    Thanks for your helpful response.

    • I think you are confused as to the level of administrative power a committee member or even a committee consultant has on posting to the city webpage – I am simply directing you to the correct place to address your concern and request, which is the appropriate city staff/department.

      I’m sure Dr. Lieberman will share your input with the Health Dept but the authority and physical ability to carry out your task rests with the Director of Public Health and city/cable staff.

      I am not being obtuse. I am telling you how to best and most quickly accomplish what you are requesting.

      As a fellow Watertown resident, I have long thought the city webpage and video/document access needs to be improved. And have expressed those concerns many times and in many ways.

      I wish you the best of luck with your discussions with the city on this matter.

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