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Meeting called for information on biolab bill

By Laura Elder — Galveston County Daily News, May 13, 2009

GALVESTON University of Texas Medical Branch officials plan to meet Friday with members of a community board about a controversial bill critics said could make secret all information about deadly germs studied at the Galveston National Laboratory.

But the meeting, scheduled for 9 a.m. at the national laboratory between top medical branch officials and a 50-member Community Advisory Board, isn't open to the general public, officials said.

Medical branch officials plan to inform the advisory board about the status of Senate Bill 2556, which they said is meant to protect employee privacy and security-sensitive information at the laboratory.

Scheduled to attend the meeting are Dr. David Callender, medical branch president; Dr. Stanley Lemon, director of the medical branch's Institute for Human Infections and Immunity; and Dr. James LeDuc, deputy director of the national laboratory.

The Community Advisory Board, meant to represent a wide range of civic, social and occupation

al sectors, formed in November 2002 as the medical branch sought to win public support for construction of the national laboratory. Researchers at the laboratory develop drugs and vaccines to battle infectious disease. They study such deadly agents as Anthrax, avian flu, bubonic plague and hemorrhagic fevers, including Ebola.

The medical branch won community support for the laboratory by pledging transparency about the pathogens to be studied there.

The proposed legislation runs counter to those pledges, opponents said.

Open government advocates, including the Texas Press Association, the Texas Daily Newspaper Association and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, have pointed 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, critics said.

Opponents of the bill said they aren't opposed to measures protecting security-sensitive information but argue state law already allows laboratory operators to withhold it.

What they're fighting is language in the bill they said could allow the medical branch to conceal all information about pathogens at the laboratory, including whether any had escaped into the community.

Medical branch officials openly discuss what they're researching at the laboratory.

Medical branch officials said Monday they would ask lawmakers to remove the word "confidential" from the proposed legislation.

Striking that word could protect the medical branch, which owns and operates the national laboratory, should it choose to provide information to the public, opponents said.

A new version of the bill with a red line though the word "confidential" was posted Tuesday on the legislature's Web site.

But the proposed legislation still would leave it up to the medical branch's discretion to make information public, critics said.

Medical branch officials said they would continue to operate the national lab with openness and transparency even if the bill became law.

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