May 1, 2020

PR Biocontainment

Federal Probe into UT System Research Center Dealings with Wuhan Lab
Could Fuel New Virus Conspiracy Wave and Complicate Texas Reopening

The Governor's Report to Open Texas

MIKE HAILEY

Republicans who want to punish China for the coronavirus are going to have a field day with revelations of a federal inquiry into a University of Texas System facility's ties to the laboratory in Wuhan where conspiracy theorists believe the disease was conceived as a biological warfare weapon to use against the U.S. and the rest of the world.

The probe into the UT Medical Branch at Galveston's relationship with the biocontainment lab in the Chinese city where COVID-19 originated has the potential to be a significant distraction for the Texas reopening plan that Governor Greg Abbott launched on Friday amid massive fanfare.

Texas leaders and officials at the state's largest public university system will be hoping that Department of Education investigation won't culminate in the kind of social media firestorm that created the false impression that the Harvard University chemistry department chair had created the current coronavirus strain that's already killed more than 65,000 Americans in the past three months.

But Abbott critics on the hard right and other GOP loyalists who've been looking for ways to blame China for the coronavirus rampage in America will have ample opportunity to take shots by virtue of association if nothing else.

The Republican governor for starters is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin where he received his undergraduate degree before going to law school out of state. Austin banker James Huffines - the chairman of the Strike Force to Open Texas that Abbott appointed two weeks ago - served for nine years on the University of Texas System board of regents including two stints as the chair.

But former GOP lawmaker John Zerwas could find himself in the most uncomfortable position in the midst of the Department of Education investigation as the UT System vice-chancellor for health affairs since last fall when he gave a Texas House seat in the Houston area for the prestigious post in higher education.

Zerwas could have plausible deniability in light of the fact that he's only been on his new job for seven months. But Zerwas is intimately familiar with the system's health care components like UTMB as an ex-legislator who served as the chairman of the Appropriations Committee and the Higher Education Committee in his final two terms in the Capitol's west wing.

A physician who's specialized in anesthesiology, Zerwas led the appropriations subcommittee that oversees state spending on health and human services during the regular legislative sessions in 2009 and 2011. He'd been a member of the subcommittee during his freshman session in 2007.

The DOE is focusing on whether the UTMB Infectious Disease Research for Global Health Security that's known as the Galveston National Laboratory failed to disclose a working relationship with the Institute of Virology in Wuhan where chief researcher Shi Zhengli has been accused of setting the pandemic in motion with a bungled experiment involving a contaminated bat.

The federal agency outlined its suspicions in a letter that it fired off this week to UT Chancellor J.B. Milliken in a request for records that show contracts or other connections to the Wuhan research center where U.S. intelligence agencies have said the coronavirus may have been born.

The inquiry appears to be somewhat curious on the surface when considering that the UTMB branch at its heart of the federal government's focus had publicized the role that it had in the construction of maximum biocontainment laboratories including the Institute of Virology in Wuhan. The Texas research publicly revealed 18 months ago that it had signed formal cooperative agreements with the Wuhan lab in a move designed to "streamline future scientific and operational collaborations on dangerous pathogens."

The UTMB facility acknowledged, however, that "funding for research and the logistics of exchanging specimens are challenges that we have yet to solve."

Texas officials from the governor's office to the UT System that's headquartered in Austin should probably be bracing for a social media hurricane like Harvard encountered after the FBI accused nanoscience professor Charles Lieber of lying to the Department of Defense about a contract that he'd had with a separate but related laboratory at the University of Technology in Wuhan.

Harvard was compelled to launch an extensive public relations initiative with the help of other high-level institutions of higher learning in the U.S. to explain that Lieber had never been accused of inventing COVID-19 or conspiring with the communist government against anyone.

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Mike Hailey presents state politics with a personal touch. He's the only Texas Capitol journalist who's been to the dark side and back - having worked for two major newspaper bureaus before signing on as press secretary for Bob Bullock - the most powerful and legendary political leader of his time in the state. Hailey's Comment, which is published in Capitol Inside on a regular basis, is a direct reflection of that experience.

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