A local biological lab operated in secrecy. Fresno leaders have a plan to gain control | Opinion

Fresno County Assistant Director of Public Health Joe Prado, right, projects images of refrigerators, freezers and various liquids found in a Reedley warehouse run by a Chinese-owned company under investigation for operating illegally, during a timeline presentation at the Fresno County Board of Supervisor’s meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023.

Fresno City Attorney Andrew Janz says his staff has been searching through the voluminous California Penal Code to find where misrepresenting the operation of a biological lab might be covered.

His staff cannot find any such section, Janz said. “We have been combing through the Penal Code to see if something like this can rise to the level of a felony. We cannot find anything,” he told The Bee Editorial Board this week.

As a result, Janz has put together an ordinance at the request of city councilmembers Garry Bredefeld, Nelson Esparza and Miguel Arias that would penalize a lab operator up to $1,000 and a year in Fresno County Jail if convicted of failing to get proper permits and notifying city officials about a biological lab operation.

This has come up in the wake of the discovery of such a lab in Reedley that was run by a Chinese company that had previously had similar labs in Fresno and Tulare.

Known variously as Universal Meditech and Prestige Biotech Inc., the firm assembled pregnancy, diabetes and drug test kits. Its Reedley location was shut down in March, however, after COVID-19 and more than 20 other infectious agents were found in refrigerators in the lab. The facility operated without proper permits and opened under cover of darkness, a Reedley code enforcement officer has said.

As reported by Bee staff writer Tim Sheehan, also discovered at the Reedley lab site were dozens of freezers and refrigerators full of vials of blood, serum and tissue samples; cartons and containers of various chemicals; stored medical lab equipment; and hundreds of lab mice that were in such distress and neglect that they ultimately had to be euthanized.

Straightforward law

The new Fresno law is on the consent calendar portion of Thursday’s City Council meeting. It should be passed without delay.

For one thing, it is straightforward. It would require the following:

“No person or entity shall operate an infectious disease laboratory within the City of Fresno without first obtaining all proper local, state, and federal licensing.”

Next, the law would mandate this condition:

“Any person or entity intending to operate an infectious disease laboratory within the City of Fresno shall notify the City of such intent through its Planning Director by letter titled ‘Notice of Intent to Operate Infectious Disease Laboratory’ prior to applying for any entitlement or permit to operate.”

Failure to comply could result in the fines and possible jail time.

Note that the proposed ordinance makes reference to “infectious disease” labs. Businesses that do routine blood testing would not be affected.

Janz said the new law is “absolutely necessary to achieve the council members’ goals, transparency being a huge part of this.

“There is no enforcement mechanism at this point, criminally, to make sure the city is notified about dangerous labs and, by extension, the public is made aware.”

The City Council should pass the ordinance. A month later, it will take effect.

It’s not like Fresno is overrun with illegal labs storing viruses and bacteria. But given the dangers such facilities could pose, city officials need to know about them to ensure public safety.