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Groups fight biolab secrecy bill

By Laura Elder — Galveston County Daily News, May 8, 2009

Open government advocates are lining up to fight a bill they say would cripple the public's right to information about deadly germs like those studied at the Galveston National Laboratory.

Critics say Senate Bill 2556 would allow laboratory operators to keep confidential all information pertaining to so-called select agents, including information about accidental infections and other releases of potentially lethal organisms.

The Texas Press Association, the Texas Daily Newspaper Association and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas oppose the bill authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican representing part of Galveston County.

Officials with the University of Texas Medical Branch, which owns and operates the facility, insist the bill does not run counter to their early promises of transparency about a laboratory where scientists handle such deadly agents as Anthrax, avian flu, bubonic plague and hemorrhagic fevers, including Ebola.

Medical branch officials asked for and support a bill they say is narrowly focused to protect the security of the lab and the privacy of researchers.

At issue, they say, are material transfer agreements, used to document the transfer of select agents and other samples to institutions that have permission to use the research material.

Although the names of principal investigators are in the public domain, medical branch officials said they are concerned about the privacy of other classifications of their own employees and the privacy of researchers at out-of-state institutions with which they are seeking to collaborate.

Federal law, which the bill is supposed to mirror, protects the names of employees, officials said.

In April, the Texas attorney general denied the medical branch's request to keep private the names of researchers and others contained on material transfer documents, costing the medical branch an important collaboration with the University of Pittsburg, officials said.

Researchers who sought the change in state law never intended to conceal all information about select agents, said Dr. James LeDuc, deputy director of the national laboratory.

"We've been very open and transparent, and I certainly don't see this changing," LeDuc said.

The very ability of researchers to do their work was at stake, LeDuc said.

But the bill, which cleared the Senate this week, would create a blanket exemption, making confidential all information about select agents at state institutions, including what pathogens researchers are handling and reports about accidents, said attorneys representing The Daily News and some of state's main newspaper and open government organizations.

"The idea that this bill would improve public safety or national security is false," said Joe Larsen, an attorney and board member of Freedom Information Foundation of Texas.

"Current law strikes the proper balance between the need to maintain security regarding operational details and the right of people who live next to these facilities and the public at large to know what pathogens, many of which are highly communicable and deadly, are being worked on in their neighborhoods.

"If these governmental bodies escape the sunlight, the result will be reduced compliance with reporting rules and reduced discipline in handling the select agents in question."

Opponents said not only would the bill allow the state's biodefense laboratories to withhold information pertaining to select agents, it would make it illegal for researchers to disclose the information even if they wanted to.

The 186,267-square-foot Galveston National Laboratory, opened in November, is one of two approved in 2003 by the National Institutes of Health after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Researchers plan to develop drugs and vaccines to battle infectious disease, including deadly germs terrorists might use.

By promising intense security and transparency, medical branch officials soothed concerns among some island residents who feared deadly germs could somehow escape the facility and endanger the public.

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