The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) has admitted that it may have violated the law in its contract with Wuhan Lab and has said they will take responsibility for the poorly drafted confidentiality provisions in potential conflict with applicable state laws.
A leading biosecurity lab in the United States has admitted that it may have violated the law by negotiating “poorly drafted” contracts with three renowned biosecurity labs in China.
The three contracts allowed the Chinese labs the right to delete “secret files” from any phase of their collaboration, including one with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
The 2017 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) signed with the Wuhan lab, which was made public in April, states that “the party is entitled to ask the other to destroy and/or return the secret files, materials, and equipment without any backups.”
The statement states that the broad confidentiality commitment, which is renewable every five years, applies to “all cooperation and exchange documents, data, details, and materials.”
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The WIV, which is situated in the city where COVID-19 first spread, has drawn attention from all over the world as a possible source of the virus. The WIV has long undertaken coronavirus research with U.S. funding. Confidentiality agreements have sparked concerns about whether important information may have been hidden from the public due to Beijing’s pattern of restricting discussion on the cause of the COVID-19 outbreak.
These confidentiality requirements may have violated state law, the Texas Medical University recently admitted.
Documents first obtained by the investigative research group U.S. Right to Know show that the university recently disclosed that it had signed contracts with identical confidentiality provisions with two other top-level biosecurity labs in China—the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute in China’s Heilongjiang Province and the Institute of Medical Biology in Kunming, China’s Yunnan Province. The WIV and the two buildings together host China’s only three labs with the highest biosafety certification.
The university said that it made a “oversight” that resulted in the inclusion of the “poorly drafted” provision.
“The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) takes responsibility for the oversight in allowing memorandums of understanding (MOUs) to include a poorly drafted confidentiality provision in potential conflict with applicable state laws,” said a university spokesperson.
Upon discovering the blunder, the institution stated that they “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,” the spokesperson said.
The UTMB refused to say when it identified the “error” or when it terminated the MOUs. The confidentiality terms will however continue to apply even “after it has been terminated,” according to the documents.
In its years of collaboration with the three Chinese facilities, the UTMB’s Galveston National Laboratory, one of two national biocontainment laboratories funded by U.S. federal grants, has trained Chinese experts in biosecurity and carried out cooperative research initiatives. In 2013, it started working with the WIV.
The agreements, according to the institution, have had little tangible effects.
“UTMB confirms no documents or confidential information has been destroyed, nor was there ever any request that any documents be destroyed,” the spokesperson said. “There was no financial engagement with any of the Chinese institutions in question or collaboration with Chinese scientists concerning coronavirus research.”
Biosafety activist Edward Hammond, who has demanded more transparency at the Galveston lab, was not convinced by the university’s stance.
“It is mystifying to me that this could have happened at all,” he said adding “Is it sloppiness, as UTMB suggests, or is something else going on?”
All three contracts were signed by James LeDuc, the Galveston lab’s director at the time.
According to previously revealed emails, LeDuc contacted top WIV scientists in charge of bat coronavirus projects in the months following the outbreak of COVID-19 in an effort to assist them in reducing criticism regarding the facility’s part in the pandemic.
He sent an email to the deputy director of WIV’s P4 lab, virologist Shi Zhengli, in April 2020, sharing a document he had written for the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations to discuss the lab leak theory.
“Please review carefully and make any changes that you would like. I want this to be as accurate as possible and I certainly do not want to misrepresent any of your valuable contributions,” he told Shi, who later emailed back a document with her edits.
LeDuc seems to have changed his mind about the subject. He was one among about thirty scientists and public health professionals that demanded more stringent control for funding on possibly pandemic-causing pathogenic studies in June.
The partnership between the UTMB and the Chinese lab has garnered interest in Congress.
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) wrote to LeDuc in July to express concern regarding the UTMB deal.
“Though UTMB may not be alone, 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 that authorizes research materials and files to be destroyed upon request,” he wrote in the letter.
“On its face, this seems to violate record retention laws and requirements on grant recipients at the NIH [National Institutes of Health].”
The lawmaker stated that he wanted to “get to the bottom of COVID-19’s origins and American involvement in Communist China’s extremely dangerous research.”
“Data sharing agreements between the CCP and U.S. entities, including the University of Texas Medical Branch, are deeply concerning,” said Roy. “Such agreements are especially alarming given the CCP’s demonstrated willingness to twist and subvert scientific research to fit their hostile political agenda.”
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