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A small California city brought down an illegal biolab. Now the county will go after them too

Reedley City Manager Nicole Zeiba says the newly adopted Infections Materials Ordinance is “incredibly important.”
Esther Quintanilla
Reedley City Manager Nicole Zeiba says the newly adopted Infections Materials Ordinance is “incredibly important.”

FRESNO, Calif. – Fresno County leaders this week passed an ordinance that seeks to closely monitor privately run labs in an effort to prevent a repeat of a biolab found a year ago.

The Board of Supervisors approved the “Infections Materials Ordinance,” which will require annual inspections of the labs that handle hazardous materials. It will not apply to labs at hospitals, clinics or commercial diagnostic labs – since those are regulated by the federal government under the Clinical Laboratories Improvement Amendment (CLIA).

The ordinance is one of the first pieces of local oversight following the discovery of an illegal biolab hiding inside an empty warehouse in downtown Reedley, a small city southeast of Fresno.

“Non-CLIA labs will think twice about coming to Fresno County,” Nathan Magsig, the Fresno County supervisor who oversees Reedley, said at a press conference on Tuesday. “Oversight and accountability are necessities to prevent this [from] happening within our county in the future.”

Reaction to the lab’s discovery even reached a congressional subcommittee – which later called for greater oversight and regulations on these types of operations across the country.

The ordinance is expected to undergo a second hearing to be formally adopted in Fresno County by early 2024.

How we got here

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.

The Reedley lab was first discovered by code enforcement worker Jesalyn Harper during a routine inspection of city buildings last December.

The checkup unraveled unauthorized lab work in unsanitary conditions, including the inhumane treatment of lab mice. Further inspection revealed a number of infectious diseases and hazardous chemicals were stored inside the facility, including COVID-19, malaria, HIV and hepatitis.

A number of agencies quietly investigated the discovery before the public became aware last summer. At a hearing last month with congressional officials, Reedley leaders hailed the work of their code enforcement worker for catching and eventually helping bring down the operators of the lab.

Officials said they managed to mitigate harm to the public, although the dangers were outlined in court records.

Federal agencies arrested Jia Bei Zhu, the owner and operator of the facility who also went by the alias “David He.” Zhu is a citizen of China whom federal officials say worked for companies affiliated with the Chinese government. He reportedly operated the companies Prestige BioTech and Universal MediTech which were used to distribute diagnostic tests for COVID-19 and pregnancy.

He faces federal charges not for the handling of dangerous materials but for allegedly manufacturing and distributing those misbranded medical devices and making false statements to federal investigators. It’s unclear why he was in possession of so many infectious diseases.

‘This is good government’

The discovery of the lab brought unlikely partners to the case. City officials worked with county, state and federal agencies on the matter, despite reports that federal agencies were hesitant to get involved.

In the end, officials say they hope the bizarre case leads to better collaboration in the future.

“This is good government,” said Paul Nerland, Fresno County Administrative Officer. “It's cities and counties working together. We don't want a patchwork of different ordinances and each city having different things.”

In order for the ordinance to work, cities within the county will need to submit requests to the county public health department to conduct unannounced site inspections at private labs where infectious materials are present.

Reedley City Manager Nicole Zeiba, who has had to debunk rumors and misleading reports about the discovery of the lab in her city, called the passage of the ordinance “incredibly important.”

“The step that was taken today will protect the county and the citizens in rural cities,” Zeiba said. And she went further: “We need to protect this country.”

Local officials are working with the U.S. House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party – the committee that investigated the lab – to implement similar legislation on a national scale.

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.