Illegal Reedley lab timeline revealed to Fresno County supervisors

Unauthorized biological agents were found on site, including mice, samples of bodily fluid and infectious diseases.

Brianna Willis Image
Wednesday, August 9, 2023
Illegal Reedley lab update given to Fresno County supervisors
The Fresno County Board of Supervisors has received an update on the future of an illegal bio-lab discovered in Reedley.

REEDLEY, Calif. (KFSN) -- The Fresno County Board of Supervisors has received an update on the future of an illegal bio-lab discovered in Reedley.

Biological agents and nearly 1,000 mice were found at the lab at the end of last year.

Unauthorized biological agents were found on site, including mice, samples of bodily fluid and infectious diseases.

Now that all the biological agents have been destroyed at the property and the existence of the lab has come out to the public, city and county officials say there's been a lot of misinformation about the facility and its impact on the community.

The county department of public health offered a presentation at Tuesday's board meeting, breaking down the timeline of the lab operations and who knew what activities were going on there.

Officials say it was the federal authorities who told local jurisdictions to hold off on notifying the public until they knew what they were dealing with.

They say during the entire process, they made sure there was never any threat to the public safety.

"I am mighty proud of our little city, this was a bad player company, a bad actor company that was kicked out of Canada, they went to Texas, they got kicked out of Texas, they came to California, they went to Fresno, kicked out of Fresno went to Tulare, kicked out of Tulare went back to Fresno, kicked out of Fresno, came to Reedley," said Reedley City Manager, Nicole Zieba.

Tuesday morning, Zieba and Joe Prado from Fresno County Public Health detailed the long history of Prestige Biotech/Universal Meditech in the Central Valley.

It all started back in 2018 in a warehouse near East North and South Orange Avenues in South Fresno.

"When they were in the City of Fresno, they did have mice there, they were doing their operation there as well," said Assistant Director with the Fresno County Department of Public Health, Joe Prado.

In August 2020, the company had a fire at their East North and South Orange location.

Shortly afterward an environmental health inspector visited the business and found the company did not have a hazardous materials business plan for having ethanol, and the permit was then completed in September.

In October 2022, Fresno County Department of Public Health staff received a complaint about chemicals at the Fresno location, but they could not get access.

"This is where we last heard of Universal Meditech in the City of Fresno," said Prado.

Fast forward to December 2022, when a Reedley code enforcement officer found a green garden hose at "I" and 10th street in Reedley.

"Our team with City of Reedley contacted the FBI to really evaluate potential public safety risk," said Prado.

Prado says they found specialty ultra-low temperature lab freezers designed to hold infectious agents at temperatures up to 80 degrees below zero at the Reedley site.

After meetings in January and February and amid a nationwide recall of the company's covid test, officials were finally able to walk through the facility in early March.

That's when they shut it down, issuing an "unsafe to occupy notice."

On March 16th of this year, the court granted an inspection warrant.

"55 gallons container of ethanol in the warehouse, 6 empty containers of liquid nitrogen, these are all items we started to see once we were able to work with city of Reedley get that inspection warrant and be able to walk through there, the live mice were there and we were going through the warehouse there," said Prado.

By April 21st, the county issued this first of three health orders, and Prado says during this time, Prestige Biotech was communicating with them.

Two months later on June 26th, a judge issued the abatement warrant.

The Fresno County Board of Supervisors has received an update on the future of an illegal bio-lab discovered in Reedley.

A week later after the July 4th holiday, all the biological materials were removed and destroyed by Fresno County and other agencies.

As of Tuesday, the City of Reedley is finishing up the cleanup effort, including the removal of freezers, furniture and other medical equipment.

"My hope is that by the time we enter heavily in fall, it will be another empty warehouse like we thought it was for the last decade," said Zieba.

Zieba says state and local representatives from Senator Caballero, Senator Hurtado, Congressman Costa and Assemblyman Mathis, have all reached out to her about ways to prevent another illegal lab from operating throughout the Central Valley.

She says she believes this should be a bi-partisan issue that brings everyone together to create change.

"I expect that as this issue rises to the surface nationwide, more and more of these are going to be discovered around the country," said Zieba.

After the discovery of the illegal lab operating in Reedley, local officials are now sounding the alarm on state and federal loopholes that allow these types of businesses to operate.

"It was frustrating going through this response, I got to say, because it just didn't seem there was enough -- there wasn't enough impact to hook, to really be able to go after this business enterprise," said Prado.

Zieba says the lab already has some approvals needed to operate on a state level.

"This company despite everything that has happened, despite the fact that we are dismantling their assets, their physical assets in Reedley, they've applied for a state medical waste generator permit and its been granted, and our understanding is the state couldn't deny it," said Zieba.

Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco is also responding to criticism from Fresno City Councilman Garry Bredefeld.

"He stated members of the board of supervisors knew about this facility for months, that's inaccurate. Simply stated, I knew about it three days before his press conference," said Pacheco.

Prado and Zieba are also trying to clarify misinformation surrounding the lab.

"At this time there's no evidence of the business being connected to a foreign government," said Prado.

Zieba says the myths in Reedley are untrue.

"There's a local myth in Reedley -- there's a supermarket that shut down across the street, there's a local myth that it shut down because mice got out and infected the supermarket -- no no no, the roof is collapsing in the supermarket and it shut a year prior to this lab coming to Reedley," said Zieba.

Prado says they will continue working to see what local officials can do to prevent this type of lab from coming back to Fresno county.

"As we go through any next steps, we are going to evaluate our resources, we are gonna evaluate our fee structures with businesses as it comes to hazard mitigation plans, and everything else here that we can at the local level to ensure this doesn't happen here," said Prado.

The Reedley City Council also has a meeting Tuesday evening at 7 pm.

For previous stories on the Reedley lab, click here.

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