Code enforcement officer Jesalyn Harper discusses discovery of secret China-run lab in California
Reedley, CA code enforcement officer Jesalyn Harper discussed her discovery of the biolab after seeing a garden hose protruding from the building’s rear with Fox News’ William La Jeunesse.(Reedley, CA and the committee)
Behind a temporary green fence under cover of heavy fog, a small team of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hazmat contractors moved quickly Wednesday to load up and ultimately ship out 800 containers full of chemicals still left behind in a warehouse-turned-underground biolab with suspicious ties to China.
It has been more than a year since the filth-ridden building surreptitiously filled with blood samples, genetically altered mice and potentially lethal infectious agents was uncovered by Jesalyn Harper, a newly hired code enforcement officer.
“Worst case scenario, someone could have gotten really sick, and they could have spread it throughout the community,” Harper told Fox News while on patrol outside the warehouse as the EPA crew worked inside.
Local officials have repeatedly stressed no one in Reedley, California, or the surrounding area was exposed to the horrors inside. Malaria, Dengue fever, hepatitis, HIV and Ebola are just some of the infections agents and parasites that were reputedly there, all capable of infecting or killing untold Americans. However, no one has been criminally charged for the shocking discoveries inside what had been an abandoned warehouse.
That fact has exasperated people in Reedley.
OWNER OF CALIFORNIA BIOLAB HAS CLOSE TIES TO CHINESE GOVERNMENT, MILITARY: HOUSE REPORT
An EPA contracted hazmat crew member going inside the Reedley, California, warehouse to remove 800 containers of chemicals that remained inside the underground biolab. (Lee Ross)
“I do understand that investigations take time and some of them take years depending on the complexity,” Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba told Fox News. “Would I have liked to have seen some charges around the infectious diseases? Yes. Would I like to see some charges around what was really happening here? Yes.”
Prosecutors charged one man linked to the biolab with selling fraudulent COVID-19 and pregnancy tests and lying to federal agents. Jia Bei Zhu, a Chinese national, pleaded not guilty and remains behind bars after federal prosecutors convinced a judge that Zhu, who is known by several other names, was a flight risk.
A recent bipartisan congressional report determined Zhu received significant financial payments from China and was in this country illegally after fleeing Canada nearly a decade ago after being found guilty of fraud, including stealing U.S. intellectual property, and along with fellow defendants, ordered to pay $330 million in damages.
While it is possible federal prosecutors are looking to expand their case against Zhu, it does not appear that the mere possession of most of the agents reported in the warehouse is illegal. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office prosecuting Zhu told Fox News last year it would not confirm or deny a potential investigation into any possible criminal activity tied to the biolab or how the various agents were obtained or possibly transported into the country.
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Last summer, California Attorney General Rob Bonta, a Democrat, told reporters his office was in the early stages of its inquiry into the Reedley operation, thus raising the possibility that Zhu or others could be charged with state crimes. On Wednesday, in San Francisco, Bonta responded to Fox News’ question seeking an update without offering much clarity.
“We are aware of that incident – continue to be – and we do not comment on pending or potential investigations,” Bonta said.
The halting response from prosecutors mirrors the seemingly tepid reaction from various federal and state agencies who were implored to intervene at the outset by local interests who felt the dangers presented by the biolab went beyond the city limits of their 25,000-person town.
FBI agents were called within days after the lab’s discovery, but early last year, they returned the investigation to officials in Reedley and Fresno County. Fox News has learned that once those federal agents determined the lab was not actually weaponized, they largely bowed out of the case.
Fox News has also learned that various entities within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were never involved in the case. Fox News received no official response from DHS when asked if its BioWatch Program, National Biosurveillance Integration Center or its National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) were activated. The department’s website says the NBACC “is a one-of-a-kind facility dedicated to defending the nation against biological threats.”
Bioterrorism expert and retired Air Force Colonel Robert Kaldec said the clandestine lab should set off alarm bells in Washington and beyond, calling attention to the possibility that bad actors could plan a mass casualty attack by legally obtaining deadly biological agents.
“This presents a moment of flashing yellow and red lights to both the law enforcement and the public health systems to figure out how they have to manage this going forward,” Kaldec told Fox News.
ILLEGAL CHINESE-LINKED BIOLAB FILLED WITH MICE, MEDICAL WASTE DISCOVERED IN CALIFORNIA
In its 40-page report on the Reedley lab released in November, the House Select Committee on China called special attention to what it called the CDC’s “inadequate” response. Last spring, agency microbiologists spent multiple days inside the Reedley lab and produced a report detailing the troubling infectious agents supposedly inside the building. However, the congressional report says it is “baffling” the CDC failed to actually test the vials to make their determinations.
“Despite the probability that the unlabeled or coded vials contained additional unknown and dangerous pathogens, CDC officials refused to take any further investigative steps,” the report stated. It also claimed CDC officials failed to take “meaningful action” when presented with evidence that Ebola, classified at the highest level of concern, may have been present.
READ THE HOUSE SELECT COMMITTEE REPORT – APP USERS, CLICK HERE:
The CDC defended its actions in the Reedley case, but Kaldec, who advised the House committee, told Fox News the overall response from the federal government must be addressed. “It demonstrated a significant gap in our awareness of these kind of laboratories. And frankly, the possibility, even though that no one got hurt or there was no, if you will, negative fallout, it just identifies that this kind of laboratory could represent a future challenge or a threat to our country.”
A pair of California agencies were also keen to avoid getting involved despite emergency pleas for help.
Reedley, California, code enforcement officer Jesalyn Harper, center, talks about the biolab and her discovery in December 2022 of a garden hose protruding from the building’s rear that raised suspicions that something illegal was going on inside. (Lee Ross)
For several years prior to its move to Reedley, the biolab had been openly operating in nearby Fresno, but city workers there had suspicions about the true nature of the enterprise operating under the name Universal Meditech, Inc. Those concerns were elevated in October 2022, when it became clear a move was imminent.
A Fresno official reached out to California EPA and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) for emergency assistance. After several days of inaction, the agencies each said they would not get involved and referred back to the local health agency.
“Glad it won’t be added to our workload,” a DTSC senior environmental scientist wrote colleagues in an email after learning about the referral. “[B]ut not so sure what will happen to it.”
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Within weeks, the lab operators were able to secretly relocate its entire operation to Reedley – without permits, regulation or permission, despite the deadly pathogens on site.
“I refuse to accept the idea that nothing else was happening in this facility, that there is nothing else that any federal or state agency can do,” Zieba told Fox News. “This community was traumatized. I think this nation was traumatized. And to have an entire government system simply turn away and say, well, the building is clean now we can walk away and go to the next thing. No, no, no. We need to continue to raise the flag.”
Fox News’ Michael Lundin contributed to this report.
William La Jeunesse joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in March 1998 and currently serves as a Senior National Correspondent.