Could ‘infectious disease lab’ return to Fresno? Council takes steps to avoid a repeat

Two Fresno City Council members, frustrated with what they say is inaction and a lack of transparency from the county of Fresno over a Chinese-owned medical laboratory that operated illegally in Reedley, are proposing a new city ordinance to ensure public notice of any new labs seeking to locate in the city.

Councilmembers Miguel Arias and Garry Bredefeld told The Bee on Thursday that they, along with council colleague Nelson Esparza, crafted the “Infectious Disease Lab Accountability and Transparency Ordinance” for initial consideration by the rest of the City Council at its Aug. 24 meeting.

If it wins preliminary approval, a final vote would happen at the council’s next meeting, now scheduled for Sept. 14. It would take effect a month after that final approval, unless it is vetoed by Mayor Jerry Dyer.

The idea for the ordinance was spawned by the discovery in December that Universal Meditech Inc. and Prestige Biotech Inc., both companies controlled by owners living in China, operating illegally in a warehouse in downtown Reedley.

Bredefeld and Arias have been critical of the Fresno County Department of Public Health and Board of Supervisors, accusing them of not being forthcoming about the lab’s existence when the health department became aware of it late last year. The information got out when a local Reedley newspaper, the Mid Valley Times, broke the story about the city of Reedley’s response to the illegal lab.

Universal Meditech Inc. previously operated legally for several years in Tulare before relocating to Fresno in early 2019, producing a range of medical diagnostic test kits. Those included COVID-19 tests after the coronavirus pandemic flared in 2020.

After coming under scrutiny from Fresno code enforcement and fire department inspectors and county public health officials in November, the company secretly relocated its equipment and materials to a warehouse in downtown Reedley, without obtaining a required business license.

“Historically speaking, (the city of Fresno has) never had a formal role in overseeing, being notified of or approving labs,” Arias told The Bee. Such labs have the right, under the city’s zoning and land-use laws, to operate in Fresno’s industrial-use zones. “They come and get a city permit like any other operation, provide a statement of what they’re going to do, and then it gets approved automatically” by the city’s planning department, he said.

But it’s the county, not the city, that has authority to grant hazardous-materials permits for labs and other facilities.

“No person or entity shall operate an infectious disease laboratory within the city of Frenso without first obtaining all proper local, state and federal licensing,” the proposed ordinance reads. It also requires any person or company wanting to open a lab in Fresno to first file a notice with the city’s planning department before applying for a permit to operate.

The ordinance also makes it a misdemeanor, with penalties of $1,000 fines and up to a year in jail, for labs that are found by the city’s code enforcement inspectors to be run outside of the scope of their approved operational statement.

The ordinance addresses some of the infectious agents that investigators with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found stored in refrigerators and freezers in the Reedley warehouse, including COVID-19, rubella, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS and malaria, as well as others ranging from tuberculosis and polio to chickenpox and anthrax.

“You’re not operating a candy store,” Arias said of such labs. “You’re operating something that has the potential to have catastrophic impact and devastation of the local community.”

Bredefeld agreed. “I think it’s clear that we’re living in very different times, and all government agencies have to be more alert, more sensitive to these kinds of situations,” he said. “We learned that labs like this, that are privately funded, don’t have the oversight that’s needed in today’s world.

“We still don’t know what they were doing (in the Reedley lab) with all of those biological agents that are infectious, that are bacterial and viral in nature: measles and rubella and chlamydia and hepatitis – what were they doing with those things,” Bredefeld added.

Representatives of Universal Meditech and Prestige Biotech, identified in email exchanges with the county health department, did not respond to emails from The Bee earlier this week inquiring about the nature of the company’s operations in Tulare, Fresno and Reedley, including why the companies did not obtain a required business license from the city of Reedley to operate.