Hollywood could not have invented a better script:
A Chinese national with ties to the communist government sneaks into Fresno County and opens a secret lab that contains containers of dangerous and highly infectious diseases, like COVID, Ebola, HIV and hepatitis. One thousand lab mice are found, more than 100 of them dead.
A sharp-eyed city code enforcement officer discovers a curious garden hose sticking out of a wall in a downtown building. Upon investigating, she finds the illegal lab and is horrified to see the toxic substances.
The lab ultimately gets shut down, and the Chinese man in charge of it is arrested. It turns out he had previously fled from Canada, where he was convicted of stealing $330 million worth of American intellectual property.
What seems make-believe is only too real. All the above happened earlier this year in Reedley, the eastern Fresno County city of 26,000.
Residents of the city, as well as Fresno County, are indebted to code enforcement officer Jesalyn Harper. She was the one who spied the hose, and she helped inform county, state and federal inspections into Universal Meditech Inc., the firm that owned the lab.
However, a special congressional investigation determined that the federal Centers for Disease Control did not act with proper oversight. Far from helping Reedley officials deal with the lab, the CDC ignored the city’s calls for help, according to the report by the Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.
The overarching finding of the select committee is that there needs to be more stringent regulation whenever private labs want to open for business. The Chinese man who operated the Reedley lab had previously run a similar facility in Fresno. A fire closed that one down. Neither lab should have been allowed.
It is good to see the select committee’s bipartisan makeup, as ensuring biological weapons do not threaten Americans transcends politics. Public safety is at stake. Congress must use the committee’s report to toughen up laws and expect more from agencies like the CDC.
As reported by Bee staff writer Tim Sheehan and McClatchy correspondent Gillian Brassil, there were gaps in the U.S. regulatory framework that allowed the “wanted fugitive” to set up the illegal biological laboratory in Reedley last year.
“All it takes to set up a private lab in America is to get a business license,” said Rep. Jim Costa, the Democrat who represents Fresno.
“These are gaps that we should all be concerned about,” he said during a recent news conference.
The alleged operator of the lab, Jia Bei Zhu, was arrested in October in Reedley on federal charges of manufacturing and distributing illegal COVID-19 test kits and lying to federal investigators. He remains in custody in the Fresno County Jail.
The select committee’s report said that the CDC did not test either marked or unmarked vials. The agency also missed a freezer that said “Ebola” on it. Ebola is a virus that causes fever, internal bleeding and organ failure, and often is fatal to anyone contracting it.
Despite numerous efforts by Reedley officials to talk to the CDC about the lab, the agency refused to speak with city representatives, “and, on a number of occasions, it was reported by local officials that the CDC hung up on them mid-conversation,” the committee report says.
The CDC also did not put Reedley officials in contact with other federal agencies that might have helped, such as the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center in Maryland.
Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, the Republican who heads the select committee, said in the report that “Americans learning about this biolab will ask an entirely reasonable question: How many other clandestine laboratories exist in the United States?
“What I find the most disturbing is not necessarily that we do not know the answer to this question, it is that no one does. Due to deep institutional failures and a lack of basic safeguards, our nation lacks essential biosecurity at a moment of competition with the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) when we need it most.”
Lucky to avoid catastrophe
Also attending the news conference was Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Bakersfield Republican whose district includes Clovis.
The problems in Reedley underscore the danger of such unlicensed labs because of the “deadliness this could have caused not just in the Central Valley, but spread throughout the country,” McCarthy said. He’s absolutely right.
Gallagher, Costa and McCarthy have a ready-made issue for 2024 — toughening up rules for private labs and expecting more stringent oversight by federal agencies.
The single largest bioterror attack to occur in the United States happened in 1984 when a cult leader and his followers poisoned some of the residents of the Oregon city of The Dalles. They put salmonella on salad bars at 10 restaurants in an effort to keep turnout low in an election. More than 700 people were sickened.
If infectious diseases had escaped the Reedley lab, the outcome could have been even worse.
Fresno County dodged a catastrophe this time. Congress and federal agencies must now do more to go beyond simple luck.