Congressional investigations into the origins of a Chinese-linked biolab continue, with the city of Reedley now the target of a subpoena.
“I am just so relieved that Congress is taking this seriously since we have not had that sense thus far from some of our State and federal partners.” — Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba
The House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party issued its first subpoena last week as it demanded documents and records from the city regarding Prestige Biotech Inc. and Universal Meditech Inc, according to Politico.
Politico reported that the Select Committee coordinated with the House Energy & Commerce Committee on the subpoena.
Prestige Biotech acquired 20 different infectious agents, laboratory mice, and thousands of gallons of biological material from Fresno-based Universal Meditech. Universal Meditech manufactured pregnancy and COVID-19 test kits before it shut down in November 2022.
Reedley officials uncovered the lab operated by Prestige Biotech in a warehouse in late 2022.
The committee did not request documents before issuing the subpoena, according to Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba.
“In issuing these congressional subpoenas, Congress is taking an important step to further collect information and address this matter,” said Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno). “It is my hope that we work in a bipartisan, coordinated manner to fully understand the scope of this lab and prevent any future labs like this one from operating illegally in our communities.”
Federal Oversight Needed on Privately-Funded Labs: Fresno County Officials
A large part of the investigation by Congress will be toward regulation and oversight, said Paul Nerland, Fresno County Administrative Officer.
“We believe federal oversight of these labs is needed and needed now,” Nerland said.
While congressional attorneys did not subpoena Fresno County, investigators met with members of the Fresno County Department of Public Health, according to Joe Prado, assistant director of the department.
They discussed potential solutions to regulate private labs. Prado said privately-funded reasearch labs do not receive the same level of scrutiny as public ones. Current law specifically exempt private labs from certain oversight. While difficult to change, Prado said those exemptions need to be corrected.
While import permits are required to bring in the kind of infectious diseases found at the Reedley lab from overseas, Prado said oversight needs to be done in how those permits are transferred.
The subpoena means Fresno County officials can be “at the table as part of the solution,” Prado said.
At Least Three Committees Looking into Lab
The House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus subpoenaed both the FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in its own investigation after saying the two agencies had been uncooperative with requests for information.
Zieba called the action a “friendly subpoena.”
“They wanted to access sensitive documents and data still under investigation, we would not have had the legal authority to release it,” Zieba said. The subpoena allows otherwise sealed records to be opened, she added.
“I am just so relieved that Congress is taking this seriously since we have not had that sense thus far from some of our State and federal partners,” Zieba said.
Fresno County Preparing New Ordinance to Oversee Labs
Nearly a month after the city of Fresno proposed rules to notify the public of new laboratories, Fresno County officials want their own rules about labs.
Prado said a new county ordinance is being proposed to increase the Department of Public Health’s ability to regulate labs with dangerous materials.
Under the proposal, annual inspections would be made to companies with dangerous biological materials. Inspectors from DPH currently don’t have authority over many of the infectious agents found at the Reedley lab, but the new rule would give them oversight of those materials, Prado said. Prado said there were also opportunities to find existing using business licenses.
Prado expected the ordinance to go before the Fresno County Board of Supervisors in October or November.
Fresno County supervisors Nathan Magsig, Buddy Mendes, and Steve Brandau were present at a press conference with Nerland, Zieba, and Prado announcing the subpoena. Magsig said supervisors could not comment on the proposal without having seen it in writing.