American lab says its contract with Wuhan Institute of Virology may have violated the law

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A Texas congressman voiced concerns about a legal agreement between the Galveston National Laboratory and the Wuhan Institute of Virology that permitted data to be deleted. (Photo credit: UTMB)

A Texas lab said it assumes responsibility for entering into “poorly drafted” agreements with three Chinese maximum biocontainment labs that granted them broad authority to delete so-called “secret files,” including research data stored on U.S. servers.

The University of Texas Medical Branch acknowledged that data destruction provisions in its contracts with three Chinese labs — including the Wuhan Institute of Virology — may have violated Texas state law in a new statement to U.S. Right to Know. 

U.S. Right to Know revealed earlier this year that Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB signed a legal agreement with the Wuhan Institute of Virology that called for any so-called “secret files” produced under their collaboration to be deleted at the request of either lab. Any and all research data resulting from the collaboration could be destroyed under the contract, experts said.

Now UTMB has revealed that the Galveston lab drafted legal agreements with two other labs — the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute and the Institute of Medical Biology in Kunming — containing the same provision empowering each to ask the other party to destroy any files and any backup files. The Institute of Medical Biology in Kunming — which recently certified its maximum biocontainment lab — had apparently not yet signed the agreement. 

“All cooperation and exchanges [sic] documents, data, details and materials shall be treated as confidential information by the parties,” the provision reads. “The party is entitled to ask the other to destroy and/or return the secret files, materials and equipment without backups.”

Given global interest in whether an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology sparked the COVID-19 pandemic, the confidentiality provision prompted concerns that valuable information about China’s coronavirus research could have been lost. 

But UTMB said that the Galveston lab has never destroyed records and that its Chinese partners never demanded that records be destroyed. UTMB said that its collaborations never resulted in any “financial engagement” such as grant funding or joint patents, and that the labs never conducted joint research on coronaviruses

“The University of Texas Medical Branch takes responsibility for the oversight in allowing memorandums of understanding to include a poorly drafted confidentiality provision in potential conflict with applicable state laws,” the statement reads. “Upon learning of the error, UTMB immediately terminated any MOU that contained language that conflicts with law and policy. A review of processes and practices at UTMB is underway and new levels of oversight for procedures are being implemented.”

UTMB has terminated all of the contracts and launched an internal review, according to the statement. 

Experts said the record destruction provision could violate the Texas Public Information Act. UTMB’s Galveston National Laboratory is part of the University of Texas System and receives federal funding.

The Galveston lab shared the two new contracts “in the spirit of transparency,” a UTMB spokesman said.

Calls for a revamp of American biosecurity policy have grown in light of the possibility that the worst pandemic in a century resulted from a lab accident, and some of those calls are coming from Galveston, Texas.

Jim Le Duc, the former longtime director of the UTMB lab who entered into the legal agreements, earlier this month joined nearly three dozen scientists in calling for greater regulation of research that could generate viruses with the potential to spark pandemics.

Le Duc, a world leading expert in biosafety, worked with senior scientist Zhengli Shi to dampen speculation surrounding a possible lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in early 2020. But later he quietly outlined how a lab leak investigation might be conducted.

Le Duc had championed his lab’s partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in an op-ed in Science as a step toward greater mutual cooperation and a step toward global standards in biosafety.  

But the possibility of a lab accident at the Wuhan lab has prompted some to voice concerns that certain grants and technology transfers from the U.S. to China may have damaged global biosecurity rather than enhancing it.

Earlier this month, U.S. Right to Know’s reporting about the UTMB lab’s prompted concerns in the Texas press and in Congress.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, expressed concerns about that contract’s record destruction provisions — or “memory hole” provisions — in a letter to Le Duc, citing U.S. Right to Know reporting. 

“It raises serious concerns that a prominent recipient of federal taxpayer dollars would enter into an agreement with any foreign entity — but especially an adversary — with such a glaring ‘memory hole’ provision,” the letter states.