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Huffman: We're not trying to hide anything

By Laura Elder — Galveston County Daily News, May 9, 2009

The author of a bill critics say would terminate the public's right to know about deadly germs being studied at state facilities such as the Galveston National Laboratory never intended to undermine open government laws, she said.

But at the heart of the issue is what the bill and its supporters say they intended to do and what opponents say the law would allow them to do.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican representing part of Galveston County, said Friday Senate Bill 2556 is meant to safeguard information about the transportation and exact locations of so-called select agents, which include Anthrax, avian flu, bubonic plague and Ebola. The bill also would protect the identity of people who handle select agents, Huffman said.

"The purpose of the bill is to protect the identity of individuals and the location of the agents," Huffman said. "There needs to be a balance about what we can know and national and state security; it was no one's intent to make it into some secret laboratory."

But open government advocates say the bill would do exactly that, shielding researchers and scientists at the Galveston National Laboratory and other state facilities from answering any questions about pathogens being studied or whether researchers or employees were accidentally infected.

Texas already has strong laws protecting security-sensitive information at research laboratories, the bill's critics say.

Open government advocates, including the Texas Press Association, the Texas Daily Newspaper Association and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, point to language in the bill that states "Information that pertains to a biological agent or toxin" as defined in federal law "is confidential and exempted from" disclosure requirements in Texas Open Records Act.

That broad language would allow laboratory operators to shield all information about pathogens, including accidents at state facilities, they argue.

Existing state laws already allow the medical branch to suppress security-sensitive information, the bill's critics say.

Before the Senate passed the bill, the language was softened to allay critics, Huffman said. The words "use or intended use" of pathogens was removed from the bill.

But the bill's opponents weren't reassured.

"The bill has the appearance of being less nefarious than originally written, but the actual effect is indistinguishable from the text as introduced," said Joe Larsen, an attorney and board member of Freedom Information Foundation of Texas.

"It makes all information pertaining to select agents confidential and has merely substituted one example of what type of information that includes for another."

Officials with the University of Texas Medical Branch, which owns and operates the Galveston National Laboratory, support the bill.

Medical branch officials, who won community support for the national laboratory by pledging intense security and transparency, say they would continue a policy of openness should the bill pass.

Friday, Dr. Stanley Lemon, director of the university's Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the medical branch, sought to reassure the laboratory's Community Advisory Board that the bill would not restrict the public's access to information about pathogens.

"Our best legal counsel tell us that this bill will not limit our ability to let you and other members of the public know which select agents are being studied within the Galveston National Laboratory, the name of the responsible principal investigator or the research being undertaken," Lemon said in an e-mail to board members.

The real issue, Huffman and medical branch officials 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 handling pathogens 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 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 names of researchers and others contained on material transfer documents, costing the medical branch its collaboration with the University of Pittsburg, officials say.

Such information in the wrong hands poses a security threat, Huffman said.

"Nowadays, once information is out, it can be posted on the Internet within seconds," Huffman said. "That was the concern. We're not trying to hide anything or prevent the public from knowing what is being studied at the lab."

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.

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