Timeline: How health, city officials unraveled a secretive medical lab in Fresno County
FRESNO, Calif. – Fresno County health officials began raising concern over an unauthorized medical lab operating in Reedley long before the lab became widely known by the public in recent weeks.
Court records show the Fresno County Department of Public Health began requesting warrants in March this year to enter the warehouse in downtown Reedley where the medical lab was operating.
But as far back as December 2022, health officials tried to contact owners of the property when concerns first started to circulate in Reedley of possible unauthorized activity inside the facility at 850 I Street.
A routine checkup by a Reedley code enforcement worker began to unravel lab work that officials said included the research and development of test kits for COVID-19 and pregnancy, but was not authorized.
The discovery, however, revealed further unsanitary conditions including inhumane treatment of lab mice and the presence of various hazardous chemicals and infectious diseases at the facility that, on the outside, appeared empty. Health officials said the lab was operated by Universal MediTech Inc. and Prestige Biotech Inc.
Joe Prado, Division Manager for the Fresno County Department of Public Health told KVPR there was a lack of safety measures in storing and handling the materials, including no adequate heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
“That's what we're used to seeing in a laboratory with that level of infectious agents,” Prado said. “All those safety protocols and environmental controls were absent at this location.”
Months-long investigation revealed risks
Officials said it took 76 days and 14 different agencies to inspect and clean up the facility between April to July this year.
Despite the county’s response to the lab’s operations, it appears it mostly flew under the radar of much of the public – even though the health department provided public notices on its website this spring. The discovery also came during the early part of the year that consumed local agencies with flooding and storm response.
Officials said it took 76 days and 14 different agencies to inspect and clean up the facility between April to July this year.
In court documents, health officials outlined their concerns that the biological and chemical materials stored inside the facility posed a risk of infectious disease to the public if they remained in the facility.
At one point in April, the Reedley Fire Department Chief Jerry Isaak even issued a warning to city officials that a potential explosion could also occur because materials were not properly stored.
Cleanup and an open investigation is continuing into the lab, but Prado said the investigation now largely falls on state and federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Drug Administration.
The investigation could include looking into the possibility of chemicals being transferred into the U.S. from Canada, where one of the companies once operated, according to court records.
“At the local public health department level, we do not have authority or oversight of the operations of laboratories,” Prado said.
Prado said he had no indication local public health was impacted by the lab’s operations. He said the health department used “syndromic surveillance” which looked at wastewater samplings and emergency department visits to detect any changes in COVID cases or general public health. He hoped state and federal authorities would reevaluate regulations surrounding laboratories in light of the discoveries in Reedley.
“I think there's an opportunity to have more collaboration with the local health department when these laboratories need to be provided some oversight,” Prado said.
Lack of public awareness causes suspicion
According to the Fresno County Department of Public Health, Prestige Biotech and Universal Meditech were not listed as a licensed laboratory. Prado said the businesses never provided proper credentials or documentation when asked. Court records showed officials spent weeks and months trying to communicate with the business owners, but weren't always successful.
Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsigposted a video on his Facebook page and in it said the City of Fresno first approved Universal Meditech to operate at a business park in the city in 2019.
“When this lab opened up in Reedley, they did not pull a permit. To my understanding, they just showed up to a site and started operating,” Magsig said.
Supervisor Magsig, in his Facebook video this week, attempted to calm concerns from the public after news of the lab became much more known last week.
“A lot of these comments from different individuals out there that somehow the public’s health or safety was ever in jeopardy or that the county was somehow trying to hide things, that is not the truth,” Magsig said.
Magsig’s online statement came hours after Fresno City Councilmember Garry Bredefeld called a news conference to criticize the county’s response. Bredefeld questioned why the county did not alert the public sooner and joined wider speculation among some about the lab’s origins and purpose.
However, court records detail a months-long intervention of the public health department, its contracted cleanup crews, as well as local first responders, and state and federal agencies. Prado, of the county health department, said the complexity and scope of the lab site made for a sensitive situation.
“We wanted to make sure we maintained the integrity of this investigation as we move forward to ensure that this doesn't happen again in Fresno County,” he said.
Timeline of lab investigation
Between October and November of 2022, Fresno County and the City of Fresno were aware of activities surrounding Universal MediTech. Supervisor Magsig said in his Facebook video at the time city code enforcement workers found hazardous materials being stored at the location – which Magsig said was 1320 E. Fortune Avenue – and county workers were called in to investigate.
For days in November, city and county workers could not locate anyone at the business’s offices, Magsig said. Between Nov. 23 and 29, a property manager told county staff Universal MediTech was involved in a possible eviction process.
By this time, court records point to Prestige Biotech and Universal MediTech already operating the unlicensed laboratory at the Reedley facility.
The following timeline details the unraveling of the medical lab inside the Reedley facility. The information contained in this timeline was gathered from court records and publicly available information.
Dec. 19, 2022 – City of Reedley code enforcement workers first become aware of activity inside the property at 850 I Street. The Fresno County Department of Public Health is notified.
Feb. 9, 2023 – Universal MediTech issues a nationwide recall of its COVID-19 testing kit on the Federal Drug Administration website. A message on the recall notice states, “Products were distributed without appropriate premarket clearance or approval which potentially could result in inaccurate test results due to lack of performance evaluation by the FDA.”
March 3, 2023 – City of Reedley code enforcement workers uncover code violations at accessible and unlocked areas of the facility at 850 I Street. Violations included exposed electrical panels, a garden hose running through a hole in the rear wall, among others.
March 10, 2023 – The City of Reedley formally requests a warrant authorizing it to enter the premises at 850 I Street in Reedley. The warrant would allow the city to inspect the condition of the property and the extent of hazards and violations. A pungent odor of mice feces is located. Staff at the property reportedly tell city workers that they are making pregnancy and COVID-19 tests. City workers state there is no record of approval for this work with the city.
March 13, 2023 – The warrant is issued, permitting entry into the facility through March 24. Reedley code enforcement workers along with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the California Department of Public Health and the Fresno County Department of Public Health enter the facility.
March 16, 2023 – The warrant is served on Wang Zhaolin, the person responsible for the property.
March 17, 2023 – Reedley staff engage in email communication with Xiuquin Yao, president of Prestige Biotech. Staff requested licenses or certifications permitting the experimentation of mice. Yao and Prestige Biotech do not provide the information, according to city staff.
March 31, 2023 – Yao reportedly tells Reedley staff mice and biological materials found at the location belonged to Universal MediTech and were moved to Reedley from the previous location in Fresno. Yao reportedly tells staff the company moved out of the Fresno location over threats of eviction. Further information provided in court records show Yao reportedly told staff Universal MediTech filed for bankruptcy and Prestige Biotech is the largest creditor.
April 4, 2023 – An abatement warrant is issued, permitting entry into the facility through April 20 and start to examine conditions. Owners of the property were served with the warrant on April 5. A veterinarian enters the facility to find a large number of dead mice and others with injuries and deformities. The mice were later euthanized. At least 10 mice were placed as evidence in custody of the police department.
April 21, 2023 – An “order of the health officer” for Fresno County is issued through May 6 to inspect and identify chemicals and biological specimens and other hazardous materials.
April 25, 2023 – Reedley Fire Department Chief Jerry Isaak issues letter to city manager Nicole Zieba regarding fire danger and explosion hazards due to the condition of chemicals inside the facility. Isaak stresses the need for an evacuation zone of one city block or more around the warehouse. The evacuation zone would include the Reedley Police Department, City Hall, Kings Canyon Unified District’s main office and approximately 12 homes. A gas station is also located next to the warehouse.
“As the timeline of this investigation lengthens, the more hazards to the public we identify, and the concern increases of a potential disaster for our city,” Isaak writes in his letter.
May 2-4, 2023 – Staff from the Center for Disease Control’s Division of Select Agents and Toxins determine at least 20 potentially infectious agents are present, among them: Chlamydia, E. coli, dengue, HIV, herpes, RSV, malaria and rubella.
May 31, 2022 – A second health officer order announced the facility at 850 I Street is closed effective immediately.
June 3, 2023 – Fresno County health officials hear from David He over email, who identifies himself as a representative tied to Universal MediTech. He mentions a new facility being prepared in Fresno at 3900 N. Blattella Lane by June 10 and awaiting a city inspection and licensing. He also mentions transferring chemicals to the new site between June 20-23.
June 9, 2023 – A third health officer order announces the facility shall remain closed.
June 15, 2023 – The Fresno County Department of Public Health formally requests a court warrant to enter the premises. The department notes repeated unsuccessful attempts to obtain cooperation by the property owner and Prestige Biotech to comply with the health officer orders.
Jun 23, 2023 – The warrant is approved by the court, authorizing the health department to: dispose of all biological material, dispose of medical waste, dispose of infectious materials, dispose of all contaminated equipment.
July 5-7, 2023 – Fresno County Public Health staff execute the warrant. During this period, health staff and a medical cleanup contractor identify 35 refrigerators holding biological material including blood and tissue, medical waste, infectious agents and equipment contaminated by those materials. Staff collected about 127 containers of biological material and medical waste during the three days. Each container was 44 gallons.
July 26-Present – The court authorizes code enforcement officers as well as state and federal agencies to enter the facility to continue the cleanup at the facility through Aug. 9. The work during this time includes removing and disposing improperly stored hazardous materials, chemicals and medical waste, removing abandoned appliances and medical equipment and machines, removing all non-permitted electrical work and then having a structural engineer assess the structural integrity of the building.
The warrant was served to the property owner, Ay-NC-LP, an agent of the property owner, Archibald M. Sam, and two agents for Prestige Biotech, Barry Zhang CPA & Associates, and Xiao Xiao Wang.