Reedley city leaders defend months-long investigation into illegal medical lab
REEDLEY, Calif. – For the first time since discovering that a medical lab was stored inside a downtown Reedley warehouse since at least October of last year, city leaders publicly addressed the issue this week.
Residents packed the Reedley City Council chambers as a dozen more waited outside. Inside, Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba tried to combat public misconceptions about the lab’s discovery, calling out rumors and misinformation after news of the lab began circulating late last month.
“The conspiracy theories are abounding,” she said. “We had one local politician get on a national news channel and say this was a Chinese illegal lab manipulating viruses to get out to the public. I assure you that is not what the real situation is.”
Universal Meditech, Inc. – which is now believed to be owned by Prestige Biotech, Inc. – operated in the City of Fresno since 2018.
A reported eviction in 2022 forced the company to leave Fresno. The company then moved its operations to Reedley – appearing to use an old warehouse as a storage place as it waited for a new 17,000 square foot facility in Fresno to be built. Though, officials in Fresno have not approved the facility.
Of the company’s moves, Zieba said “They came under the cover of night into Reedley, did not approach the city in any way, did not get a city business license, did not get a permit.”
Following months of investigation to understand what was inside the facility and how it got there, Zieba assured citizens that the lab did not threaten public health. She said the city tests water and sewage systems regularly and nothing unusual was found as a result of the lab.
“We would have had an operational plan to immediately inform the public, whether that be evacuation…whatever had to happen,” Zieba said.
Instead, she said the city was following the direction of federal investigators who wanted to track down the lab operators. At least 14 agencies were involved during the months-long investigation to clear the hazards inside the facility.
“Transparency is important, absolutely. The timing of that transparency is critical if we want to be able to hold the bad guys accountable,” Zieba said.
But Zieba also expressed other questions of her own as the city continues to quell concerns.
“The most alarming aspect was to find out that federal loopholes exist that allow these types of labs to exist nationwide,” Zieba said. “So research and development labs could be anywhere in this country right now legally.”
Local health departments have no oversight on privately funded labs, and instead rely on federal regulations, according to local officials. A federal investigation into Universal Meditech and Prestige Biotech’s activities is ongoing, but officials have not released details.
City officials said, for now, cleanup at the former warehouse building wrapped up this week.
Still, the reaction from residents is mixed. Reedley resident Mari Garcia said the public should have known about the lab sooner.
“What you did was wrong and dishonest and I feel like we can't trust you ...and you need to resign,” she said to the city manager as cheers erupted from the crowd outside.
Reedley native and retired emergency responder John Powell commended the work of city leaders.
“If you want a case study to look at in local response, this is it – once it’s done,” he said.