A top executive with a Reedley biolab was arrested Thursday in a sting operation at the very warehouse where city inspectors uncovered the company’s illegal laboratory.
Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba introduced herself to Jia Bei Zhu, CEO of Universal Miedtech Inc., moments before agents with the Food & Drug Administration drew their weapons and arrested him.
“He pulled up, got out of his car, I shook his hand and said, ‘Hello, David,’” Zieba said. “And the FDA law enforcement branch pulled up right behind to block him in, came out of their cars with guns pointed at us. And you know, obviously, I backed away at that point and they took him into custody.”
Jia Bei Zhu, who also goes by the names Jesse Zhu, Qiang He, and David He, was arrested on a criminal complaint for manufacturing and distributing medical devices in violation of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. He also allegedly made false statements to the FDA, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a news release.
Zhu, a Chinese national, is a former Clovis resident.
“As part of his scheme, the defendant changed his name, the names of his companies, and their location,” U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert said in a news release. “The disarray at the Reedley lab led to the glare of publicity he was trying to avoid, and the ensuing investigation unraveled his efforts to circumvent the requirements that are designed to ensure that medical devices are safe and effective.”
Investigators Used Zhu’s Claims for Damages Against Him
Zhu had broken off contact with investigators shortly before the media had found out about the 20 deadly diseases, 1,000 lab mice, and thousands of gallons of biological materials owned by UMI at 850 I St. in Reedley.
“When all of this kind of went public, we lost communication,” Zieba said. “We knew that the feds, the FDA, were working on charges. They were able to get a warrant. But even if you have a warrant, if you don’t know where the person is, it’s hard to arrest him.”
But it was a claim filed on behalf of UMI to collect damages from the company’s destroyed assets that led to Zhu’s capture.
FDA agents had tried to get Reedley officials to get Zhu to come to the city where they could arrest him in a controlled environment, said Jesalyn Harper, code enforcement officer with Reedley. Harper originally discovered a hose coming out of the warehouse. On further investigation, she and others found everything stored at the warehouse.
Harper won Code Enforcement Officer of the Year because of the discovery.
But federal agents didn’t know how to get Zhu to come to the city.
On Friday, Fresno County officials received a claim for $50 million from an attorney representing UMI. The city of Reedley received a $30 million claim the following Monday.
This gave federal agents the means to get Zhu. Harper said she and Zhu had become comfortable enough that they could speak on the phone. They coordinated that he would arrive at 11 a.m. Thursday at the warehouse to meet her and Zieba.
“We were preparing to orchestrate the situation when the claim was filed with the city of Reedley for the $30 million that opened the door for us to really establish communication with David and his attorneys again because we hadn’t really heard from him since the situation at the lab went to press,” Harper said
Once Zhu got out of his car, agents were able to identify him and that’s when they arrested him.
Eight Years of Charges and Feds Could Add More
If convicted, Zhu could face three years in prison for misbranding medical devices and five more years for making false statements.
Federal attorneys could add more charges. Zieba cited an article claiming Zhu is wanted in Canada, fleeing that country in 2014. The DOJ did not have any information regarding about the situation in Canada.
“This is just the start of charges to hold him,” Zieba said. “Because obviously, this man is a flight risk. You know, this man has multiple identities, he’s been in multiple countries. And these charges are charges where they can clearly hold him. So, I do expect that the community is going to see more charges coming.”
Federal law mandates that if convicted, criminals have to serve at least 80% of their sentence.
Zhu is only one of the executives connected with UMI and Prestige Biotech. Xiaoxiao Wang also identified herself as the CEO of UMI.
“There are two women who’ve been involved that we’ve actually, you know, one of them we met on site,” Zieba said. “SO, I don’t know… if they’re involved in the criminal aspect of any of this.”
Charges Include Unauthorized Medical Kits, Lying to Investigators
Between December 2020 and March 2023, Universal Meditech Inc and Prestige Biotech Inc connected, imported, sold, and distributed COVID-19 test kits and pregnancy test kits at their plant in south central Fresno and at Reedley, the DOJ says.
But neither company had the required authorizations to manufacture test kits, investigators say. One of UMI’s authorizations expired in 2020. The FDA issued a recall on UMI’s COVID-19 test kits in February.
When questioned by FDA officials, investigators say Zhu made false statements about his identity, his ownership, and control of the two companies, as well as their activities.
Manufacturing COVID test kits requires an Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA. Because of major deficiencies in UMI’s test studies, the company never received one, the DOJ said.
During the investigation, Zhu told officials he was hired as a COVID-19 consultant in 2021. He also said Prestige Biotech had hired him to communicate with governmental agencies regarding the biological materials discovered at the Reedley lab.
Investigators allege Zhu also represented himself as David He. Harper maintained communications with He throughout the investigation. Despite having a strong feeling that Zhu and He were the same person, Harper said she made sure not to clue him into that fact.
Lawmakers React to Arrests
Representative Jim Costa (D-Fresno) called Zhu’s arrest a “step in the right direction.”
“The arrest of Jia Bei Zhu is a step in the right direction to hold him and those behind the illegal Reedley lab accountable,” Costa said in a statement. “I brought federal agencies in and pushed for investigations, which resulted in this arrest. I am hopeful that further investigations will fully unravel the details and purpose of the lab in Reedley.”
Fresno City Councilman Garry Bredefeld called for more transparency and accountability.
“The Department of Justice announcement that they arrested the operator of the illegal Reedley Chinese biolab is great news,” Bredefeld said. “There needs to be accountability for the activities that took place there and the danger it posed to the public. The public also needs to know what these people were doing with infectious agents that included COVID-19, rubella, malaria, Hepatitis B and C, and the experiments that were taking place. There is still much more to know about their intentions and the public had and has every right to know that information.”
Zieba said she was relieved an arrest was made.
“We have wanted this so badly,” Zieba said. “We have wanted accountability and consequences for what this company had done to our community.”