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Last Updated

16 Aug 2003

Source: The Davis Enterprise (CA), August 16, 2003

Secrecy law will apply to UCD labs

By Crystal Ross O'Hara/Enterprise staff writer

UC Davis officials now say they believe information regarding dangerous viruses and bacteria at the university's proposed National Biocontainment Laboratory will fall under federal rules passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 prohibits disclosure of certain information concerning, among other things, quantities of select agents, which researchers are using them and where, and notification of releases. It further warns that officials who do release such information could be fined or jailed.

Last month, university officials told The Enterprise that it was their understanding that because the lab would not be a federal agency, it would not be required to operate under the so-called Bioterrorism Act.

But after further review, university attorneys determined that the proposed lab, and all labs on campus currently using select agents, are covered under the act.

"We hadn't completely pieced together how this relates to us until relatively recently," said campus counsel Steve Drown. He added that the law is confusing, and was adopted only nine months after Sept. 11, 2001 -- far quicker than most congressional acts.

If approved by the National Institutes of Health for funding, UCD's Western National Center for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases would not technically be a federal agency. But Drown said it is now university attorneys' legal opinion that it was Congress' intent that the Bioterrorism Act apply to all institutions using select agents.

"If we were allowed to disseminate information that federal agencies are not, the whole process would be undermined," Drown said.

Select agents including a wide variety of human and animal viruses and bacteria. Researchers at UCD already have such agents on campus in Biosafety Level 3 laboratories, including those that cause botulism, exotic Newcastle disease, brucellosis and anthrax. The proposed facility also would include a Biosafety Level 4 lab where researchers would study some of the world's deadliest diseases.

University officials continually stress that a release from a high-containment laboratory is unlikely, given the state-of-the-art safety and security technology employed at such facilities. But if there were a loss or release of a select agent at the lab, university officials would be required to first contact the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and then local officials, such as law enforcement, the county public health director or the UCD Fire Department, depending on the incident.

It would fall to those agencies to determine whether the public should be notified of the incident and how.

The revelation that the university will comply with the Bioterrorism Act is likely to inflame opponents of the proposed lab, many of whom have expressed concerns that research there would be shrouded in secrecy.

Davis City Councilwoman Sue Greenwald has been an outspoken opponent of the lab for this very reason. She alleged that as part of the federal biodefense program, lab researchers would be required to focus specifically on agents that could be used by bioterrorists. These agents are singled out by the Bioterrorism Act for unprecedented secrecy and surveillance, she said.

"The biodefense program must operate under federal laws which are antithetical to the university and city norms of openness and freedom of information," Greenwald said. "The national biodefense laboratory belongs in a more secure and remote location."

UCD Provost Virginia Hinshaw said it is a challenge for the university to deal with these new laws.

"Clearly, universities must comply with them, but the interpretation of such laws evolves," she said. "So it is important for universities both to understand and contribute to that interpretation -- that is an ongoing process whenever new laws are passed.

"I have always been a strong advocate for openness in research and I'll continue to work from that position," Hinshaw added.