Expert: Only time can tell how wide A/H1N1 virus will spread in U.S.
By LISA FALKENBERG — Houston Chronicle, May 19, 2009
Score one for the concerned citizens of Galveston.
Zilch for the lawyers, or whoever wrote that awful piece of legislation that threatened to shroud the island's potentially dangerous maximum-containment biolabs in secrecy.
It seems the folks at the University of Texas Medical Branch have heard the public outcry.
After a pelting of bad publicity on the bill, including a Galveston City Council resolution Thursday opposing it, university officials held a public meeting Friday. They sought public input via e-mail. They promised to scale down the bill's scope.
And they seem to have remembered the promises of transparency they made several years ago when trying to win public approval of the Galveston National Laboratory.
The version of the bill by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, that I wrote about last week would have blocked public access to any information that "pertains to a biological agent or toxin identified or listed as a selected agent under federal law."
To a creative lawyer or custodian of public records at a government agency with an aversion to sunshine, that phrase could have applied to anything. Accidents. Exposures. Infections. Or basic information on deadly germs the lab is handling.
A new version of the legislation, which UTMB has submitted for community approval before presenting it as a substitute in House committee, would make it clear the secrecy applies only to a finite list of types of information. Those include the location of a select agent, security and safeguard protections and the identity of individuals handling the agents.
UTMB told me Monday it is also addressing another issue that has raised suspicions: another piece of legislation, referred to by some critics as "the stealth bill."
Tucked in a broad bill on employee safety was a little-known provision that would have blocked disclosure of the names of people with access to the agents. When someone asked about the "stealth bill" during Friday's public meeting, UTMB had no response.
On Monday, Marsha Canright, UTMB's director of media relations, told me the medical branch had talked with the bill's Senate sponsor, John Carona, R-Dallas, about stripping the provision. She said that House sponsor, Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, "has assured us" it would be cut.
Canright said the move was in response to recent "community distress" about the sensitive issue of transparency. She said UTMB wants to focus only on fixing Huffman's bill.
Sounds like progress. But it doesn't erase lingering questions.
Why wasn't UTMB open with the community about the legislation from the beginning, instead of allowing it to silently slip through the Senate before anybody noticed? Who actually wrote the thing? UTMB officials keep claiming they're just humble scientists who don't know much about that technical legal mumbo-jumbo and can't answer technical questions on why they really need it.
And, truly, why are UTMB officials so persistent about passing this legislation when it appears security-sensitive information pertaining to the labs is already protected by state and federal law?
UTMB says it wanted the bill because of abusive open records requests from one individual who sought sensitive information.
But when Galveston Daily News Editor Heber Taylor asked during Friday's meeting whether security had been breached at UTMB under state laws, medical branch President Dr. David Callender said: "No."
Texas statute The Texas law dealing with homeland security, 418.178(b)(2)(B), makes information confidential that reveals the location of "a chemical, biological agent, toxin, or radioactive material" that could be used as a weapon, along with "unpublished information relating to a potential vaccine or to a device that detects biological agents or toxins."
There are all kinds of rumors about UTMB's motivations. Conspiracy theories flourish when trust has been lost. But there's still a chance for medical branch officials to get it back. They seem to be headed in the right direction.