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What we know about the company at the center of a Reedley lab investigation

A sign announces it is unsafe to enter the Reedley facility holding an unauthorized medical lab.
A sign announces it is unsafe to enter the Reedley facility holding an unauthorized medical lab.

FRESNO, Calif. – The City of Fresno said Thursday it cannot approve a permit for Prestige Biotech, Inc. – the company that appears to run Universal Meditech, Inc. – to operate at a new location in the city.

The company was awaiting a decision on whether it could move into the new property near the Fresno airport. Instead, the company is at the center of a state and federal investigation after it appears to havemoved operations to a Reedley location without permission of the city starting last October.

The company had operated in Fresno since 2018 until a fire in 2020 and a reported eviction from its location at the North Pointe Business Park in 2022 began to imperil the company. Then last December, a code enforcement worker in the City of Reedley spotted a water hose running into a downtown warehouse that led city staff to uncover the company had been operating its medical lab and storing equipment without permission for months at the facility.

Further inspection by local, state and federal agencies revealed a number of infectious diseases and hazardous chemicals were stored inside the facility, including COVID-19, malaria, HIV and hepatitis.

The Fresno County Department of Public Health said it took roughly 76 days and 14 agencies to clear hazardous conditions – including euthanizing hundreds of lab mice found in distress. The work is still continuing to clear out the facility of equipment.

According to court records, the health department was in communication with representatives of both Universal Meditech and Prestige Biotech throughout the investigation. However, the communication showed health officials struggling to obtain clear information.

In one instance, the health department requested addresses and phone numbers to the offices of the company Prestige Biotech. But the health department informed the company representative the addresses provided – which were listed in the Chinese province of Shandong – couldn’t be located.

An email sent to a representative of Universal Meditech was not returned by the time of this publication.

Company history in the Valley

According to past media reports, Universal Meditech first came to the San Joaquin Valley in 2015. The company, which focuses on research and development of diagnostic test kits, set up a facility in Tulare where it focused on providing products for the agricultural industry.

The company was also highlighted by the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation in 2019 for bringing its research and development jobs to the region. The company had applied for a state tax credit incentive program for companies with job-creating projects.

Court records point to the possibility Universal Meditech was in transition as it planned to move into the new facility near the Fresno Yosemite International Airport by late June this year. Emails included in court filings show a representative for Universal Meditech stated the company was awaiting approval and licensing by the City of Fresno.

But on Thursday, the city sent a letter to the property manager of the proposed facility, Ford Tetra Partners, informing that the city could not approve a new operational plan because it was submitted by Prestige Biotech and that company is not the authorized user of the facility.

The letter laid out other concerns with the new operational plans, including that the facility was only approved for manufacturing diagnostic medical testing devices and no actual diagnostic work performed on site. It also stated the city didn't have a list of hazardous materials that would be used, and that more staff and visitors were expected to be at the facility than previously approved.

The city letter came after the intense scrutiny on the company amid the discoveries in Reedley. It’s unclear whether ongoing investigations will allow the company to resume operations at all.

Past recalls, lawsuits

Universal Meditech has been the focus of other legal proceedings.

A lawsuit filed in February this year by Proper Defense Law Corporation in the Fresno Superior Court accuses the company, along with several individuals and businesses connected to the company, of fraud and breach of contract “through direct oral misrepresentations, speaking half-truths, and concealing material facts.”

In a separate judgment from January this year in the United States Eastern District Court in Louisiana, Universal Meditech was ordered to pay around $2.2 million to Sensiva health, LLC, and Cormeum Lab Services, LLC, in owed money dating back to 2021. The original complaint stemmed from compliance issues discovered by Sensiva on “lateral flow devices,” similar to those used to test COVID-19 or other infections.

Universal Meditech was tasked with producing around 700,000 of those devices, but Sensiva found the packaging of the devices did not include desiccants, which absorb the humidity and moisture in the air, among other issues.

The company also recalled its COVID-19 testing kits at least twice, according to the Federal Drug Administration.

In March 2022, the company recalled over 200,000 testing kits that were distributed to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Montana, New York and Texas. In February 2023, the company recalled around 56,000 test kits distributed in California and Texas.

In both instances, the product had not been approved by the FDA.

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is KVPR's News Director. Prior to joining the station's news department in 2022, he was a reporter for PBS NewsHour and The Fresno Bee.