A central California city is reeling after a nondescript warehouse turned out to be an illegal lab with deadly pathogens, including coronavirus, HIV, and malaria.
If it were not for an errant hose sticking out of the back of the warehouse last spring, city officials would not have known that a shady biotech company with links to China had set up shop there, filling it with industrial freezers, hundreds of vials of viruses, and about 1,000 dead and dying lab mice.
Government investigators also found Covid diagnostic and pregnancy tests at the underground testing facility that they believed were being developed there, in addition to at least 20 stored infectious agents, including coronavirus, HIV, hepatitis, and herpes.
The lab was run under a company called Prestige Biotech unlicensed for business in California, whose president Xiuquin Yao said was a successor to the now-defunct company Universal Meditech Inc. However, officials dispatched to addresses linked to the companies turned up at empty office buildings or addresses in China that could not be verified.
The months-long investigation resulted in early July in the proper disposal of all dangerous chemicals and substances, labeled and unlabeled, and while officials there note that a probe into the origins of the lab is ongoing, they claim people in the surrounding area are safe.
The nondescript warehouse was located on I street in Reedley, Calif. It was identified by a code enforcement officer who happened to be passing by when they saw a garden hose located where it should not have been
A search warrant issued less than three weeks later revealed hundreds of vials of improperly labeled chemicals and biohazards, including what ended up being stored coronaviruses, herpes viruses, hepatitis, and malaria, in addition to about 1,000 dead or dying lab mice
While officials say the immediate danger has been resolved and power has been cut to the building, there will be lingering concerns about possible contamination in the area from improper waste disposal and leakage of dangerous bacteria and viruses that could pose health dangers to Reedley residents.
The black-market type lab operating in the sleepy town of Reedley, California, was brought to official attention in early March when a code enforcement officer, driving down the street noticed a garden hose sticking out of a building where it should not have been.
This lucky catch thrust into motion a combined state, local, and federal probe, one that Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba had never seen before.
Ms Zieba said: ‘This is an unusual situation. I’ve been in government for 25 years. I’ve never seen anything like this.’
A warrant issued soon after the official happened across the code violation allowed those in the government to search the nondescript building, where they were shocked at what they found.
In one room were about 1,000 inhumanely stored white lab mice, roughly 200 of which were already dead. According to Assistant Director of the Fresno County Department of Public Health Joe Prado, the lab was conducting tests on the mice that would help develop Covid test kits found on site.
Mr Prado said: ‘They were utilizing laboratory mice to see whether or not the Covid test kits were actually testing for Covid. So that was the purpose for the laboratory mice on-site.’
Mr Prado did not add whether any of those Covid tests had been given or sold to the public.
They also found a wide array of vials containing biomaterials including blood and tissue, as well as many other unlabeled chemicals, some of which were found to contain the coronavirus, as well as bacterial and virus pathogens including HIV, chlamydia, E. Coli, streptococcus pneumonia, hepatitis B and C, herpes 1 and 5, rubella and malaria.
Court documents showed that chemicals, lab devices, and furniture were improperly stored at the unassuming warehouse
The black market lab was not licensed to operate there and while hazardous chemicals have been properly disposed of, officials have yet to reveal specifics about who was running the lab, who erected it, and what the purpose of it was
Mr Prado added: ‘Here at the public health department we operate our own lab so were very well versed in the legal requirements and how to maintain and control an infectious agent. And there was just a complete absence of those controls in place at the warehouse.’
In addition to finding nearly a thousand lab mice either dead or in distress, court documents revealed that investigators also found refrigerators and freezers with blood and containers labeled as ‘serum or plasma.’
The officials were tasked with determining the provenance of the mysterious lab, which was found to be run by Prestige BioTech registered in Las Vegas.
City officials identified Xiuquin Yao as the company’s president, who said Prestige BioTech shifted operations to the Reedley warehouse that was previously run by a now-defunct company called Universal Meditech Inc. Prestige was identified as UMI’s successor, according to court documents.
But when officials were tasked with searching locations tied to either company, they turned up at abandoned offices or found linked addresses back in China that they could not verify.
City officials maintain that those operating under the name Prestige BioTech have not been forthcoming with information, though the investigation is ongoing and may turn up more answers down the line.
Ms Zieba said: ‘There are no more biologicals. There are no more mice, but they still will see us abating 30 freezers and fridges, medical equipment, and all sorts of furniture in there. They’ll still see some activity nothing hazardous at this point.
‘Some of our federal partners still have active investigations going I can only speak to the building side of it.’