GALVESTON — A day after announcing the creation of a task force to address Texas’ response to infectious disease, Gov. Rick Perry visited Galveston to tour one of the few facilities in the state where deadly diseases are studied by researchers.
Perry and other officials received a guided tour of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch on Tuesday. Perry then spoke to the media about the state’s ongoing response to the case of a Dallas man who was diagnosed last week with Ebola.
“This is a place where theory becomes reality, where therapies are tested, where vaccines are found and ultimately where lives are saved,” Perry said.
Perry signed an executive order on Monday, creating the 16-member Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response. During the next six months, the task force will assess the state’s capabilities to respond to pandemic disease. Reports issued by the task force will offer recommendations on the state’s emergency response procedures.
While Perry and others insisted that the state’s existing systems will ensure that a widespread outbreak of Ebola will not happen, health officials have come under fire for the procedures that allowed a man in the Dallas case, Thomas Eric Duncan, to be released from a hospital, even after showing symptoms of the disease.
Duncan, a native of Liberia, had recently traveled to the country and returned after contracting the virus.
Perry said the responsibilities for controlling an outbreak fall on the federal government as well.
“I call for Washington to institute enhanced screening procedures immediately at all ports of entry,” Perry said. “We need more information from people living in those areas, particularly those arriving from affected areas. We need to take the basic steps to check their health.”
The task force members include two medical branch officials, virologist Thomas Ksiazek and National Lab director James LeDuc.
Dr. Kyle Janek, a Galveston native and executive commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services, is also on the task force.
“They’re going to study and improve upon our existing emergency plans, enhancing our ability to quickly and effectively stop the spread of emerging and infectious diseases of all types,” Perry said.
The National Lab has received increased attention since the outbreak of Ebola in Africa earlier this year. The lab received a $6 million award from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense in August, part of which will be used to study Ebola.
National Lab officials say that since the outbreak of the disease, efforts to research Ebola and the potential cures have received increased support.
Thomas Geisbert, a researcher and professor of microbiology at the medical branch, said the National Lab was working on at least three Ebola treatments that could be ready for Phase I human trials by 2015.
“The federal government has stepped up, and over the course of the next four or five months I think you’ll see some of these Phase 1 trials done,” Geisbert said.
But officials made clear on Tuesday that Ebola is not the sole focus of the new task force or researchers at the National Lab.
“Right around the corner is West Nile virus, dengue virus, Chagas’ disease, cikungunya fever,” Dr. Brett Giroir, director of the governor’s new task force, said.
“All these really are potential threats to the well-being and economy of our state. We really pledge to get a unified plan to attack all of these.”