The company behind the "illegal lab" in Reedley also operated for several years in the city of Fresno incognito
By ONME Newswire
FRESNO,Calif. -- Ever since local online, Central Valley news outlet, Mid Valley Times, posted a peculiar news report on July 25 about a code-enforcement check-up revealing an illegal lab, in the predominantly agricultural city of Reedley, Calif., owned by a man who lives in China, more interesting facts are being exposed to the public through news updates.
The unnoticed, medical warehouse locate on 850 I Street in Reedley was originally discovered by the enforcement officers who were citing the property due to an illegally attached garden hose that led to the facility, according to the Mid Valley Times. The article also noted that the property was labeled vacant according to the city records, and that there had not been city approvals regarding the property, according to City Manager Nicole Zieba.
However, the inconspicuous problem got worse once the code enforcement officers called the Fresno County Department of Public Health (FCDPH) to describe to them what they found at the incognito lab: COVID-19 and pregnancy test kits in a filthy lab, numerous infectious diseases and agents, and thousands of unkempt white lab mice.
They also reached out to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the FBI, the State Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the State Department of Health, and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). That is when it was confirmed that the lab had been operating in Fresno County since October 2022.
Ironically had it not been for a small fire, August 26, 2020, the lab would have maintained its residence in the city of Fresno before moving its location to Reedley. The lab which operated under company name, Universal MediTech Inc. and was acquired by Prestige Biotech in 2020, was originally located at the Fresno’s North Pointe Industrial Business Park. It had been operating in the city of Fresno since August 14, 2018, according to Joe Prado, assistant director of the FCDPH.
Prado presented his report at a Fresno County Supervisor meeting, August 8, 2023 reviewing the chronology of events. Prado noted the numerous times they attempted to inspect the facility in November 2022, since they received a complaint from City of Fresno Code Enforcement and City Fire Department regarding chemicals stored at the Universal MediTech facility in Fresno. They were able to send email correspondence to Xiao Xiao Wang, President/CEO of Universal MediTech Inc. Below is a timeline Prado presented at the Fresno County Board of Supervisors meeting:
It was December 19, 2022 when the Reedley Code Enforcement Officer contacted FCDPH regarding business found operating at 850 I Street, who then cited multiple code, building, and zoning violations for the business the very next day, and they had concerns regarding possible hazardous materials stored at facility.
On December 20, Reedley Code Enforcement and FCDPH contacted FBI regarding potential public safety risks; the FCDPH contacted FDA and CDPH requesting assistance regarding suspicious medical test manufacturing company. The very next day, the FBI coordinated a meeting with state, federal and local agencies and instructed the agencies to standby until conclusion of their investigation.
By the beginning of 2023, the federal and state agencies were in constant contact about the situation; on February 9, 2023, FCDPH was informed by DTSC that the FBI had given state and local agencies approval to resume civil investigation.
Meanwhile, Universal MediTech issues a nationwide recall of its COVID-19 test kits and a multi-agency meeting is coordinated to proceed on an investigation of Prestige Biotech. CDPH Food & Drug Branch to take lead on the investigation of medical devices.
By the beginning of March 2023, FCDPH staff met at the City of Reedley Fire Department with CDPH, DTSC, City of Reedley Police, Fire, Code Enforcement, and Building Inspector where a walk-thru was conducted: there were no reportable amount of hazardous materials observed in accessible areas, according to Prado. However, the City of Reedley posted a, "Unsafe to Occupy Notice" on the front door of the building. Prado said the site was then contained and there was no imminent risk to the public.
From March thru July, judges, local and state authorities terminated the lab rats and rid the facility of any biological matters in question. By the end of July, onsite air testing was clear, water and wastewater testing found no issues, electrical power was maintained to refrigerators and freezers, Syndromic Surveillance from all Fresno County emergency rooms did not show any anomalies and COVID-19 Wastewater and Clinical Surveillance demonstrated normal variants circulating in the community according to Prado; although, there is still an ongoing investigation under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, California Department of Public Health, Food and Drug Branch, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
This past Thursday, Fresno City Council unanimously passed a city ordinance regarding the "illegal" lab discovered in Fresno County's city of Reedley, in a first vote. The purpose of the ordinance is to ensure accountability and transparency regarding any labs working with infectious diseases who want to operate in the city of Fresno. The ordinance will provide greater protection for the public, said the Fresno City Council. District 6 council representative, Gary Bredefeld authored the ordinance, blaming Fresno County leaders for a lack of transparency once the infectious diseases lab was accidentally discovered. His key point was that the public would have still never known had Reedley officials not cited the business for city violations and had the local media not reported on it.
"So, basically we have this juncture," explained council member, Bredefeld at the city council meeting, "we have two supervisors who apparently were told in March--Magsig and Mendes--we have another supervisor who found out June 16 or 15 and two other supervisors, including the board chair who found out July 27. So, how that is we have a lab that is discovered to be genetically engineering mice to catch and carry COVID-19 as well as having biological agents--infectious agents that are biological in nature that include measles, rubella, hepatitis, chlamydia, HIV, and they are illegally dumping medical waste improperly and the public doesn't know. Seems to be forgotten by this board of supervisors and frankly the department of public health in the county was that the public had a right to know, has a right to know, all of the information about this lab, now eight months after it was reported by the Mid-Valley Times."
Bredefeld continued his comments, saying that he did not believe that the Fresno County Board of Supervisors had just found out about the lab in the summer because the lab had been operating in Fresno County for several years. It was not until the media exposed the issue did they feel a need to inform the public. Bredefeld called out the county supervisors for the lack of action on the matter in a July 31 press conference.
District 7 council representative, Nelson Esparza, also expressed his concerns on the matter on behalf of the safety of the residents and co-sponsored the ordinance.
"With this type of legislation in place, we can ensure that some of the disasters that we have seen as such will not be occurring in the city limits.
District 3 council representative, Miguel Arias who is support of Bredefeld's concerns and ordinance, also attending and speaking at the press conferences, said that the residents have a right to know what is happening.
"If we have the responsibility and they have a right to know when a restaurant is going to sell alcohol in their neighborhood," said Arisa, "or a cannabis shop is going to open in their neighborhood, then surely they have a right and we have a responsibility to inform them if a COVID, infectious disease lab is going to open up in their neighborhood. It's common sense to me and it's a commonsense failure that the county has engaged in."
Arias continued with comments about the county and the county department of health's permitting process that is already in place; the city of Fresno should not have to duplicate these efforts for a process already in place. If anything, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors need to bolster up the inspection and permit process for such labs and public transparency requirements, since they do this practice already for food inspections.
Arias assured residents that the city would take action where the county has failed.
However, it should also be noted that both Arias and Bredefeld are currently running for a seat on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors come March primaries: Arias and council member Luis Chavez are competing for incumbent Sal Quintero’s seat in District 3. Bredefeld is running for District 2 incumbent's seat Steven Brandau.
Anyone found in violation of this ordinance would be charged with a misdemeanor, face up to one year in a county jail and be subjected to a $1,000 fine.