Code enforcement officers in the farming town of Reedley discovered a secret biological lab in a warehouse that contained nearly 1,000 bioengineered mice that were designed to carry the COVID-19 virus.
The discovery resulted in the Fresno County Department of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the FBI, the California Department of Public Health and other agencies being brought in to deal with the situation.
Driving the news: Reedley code enforcement investigated a warehouse located at 850 I St. in early March because of an illegally attached garden hose.
- That investigation led to an investigation by the Fresno County Department of Public Health that uncovered a secret biological lab, finding 36 freezers located in the building.
- The county found over 800 biological materials and chemicals on site, including blood, tissue and other bodily fluids, as well as thousands of unlabeled vials that contained fluids.
- Investigators found a room in the warehouse where COVID-19 and pregnancy tests were being produced.
- The county also discovered nearly 1,000 bioengineered mice. Wang Zhaolin, a representative of Prestige Biotech – the company operating the lab – told county investigators that the mice were genetically engineered to catch and carry the COVID-19 virus.
- With 178 mice found dead, the county euthanized the other 773 mice after being advised by a veterinarian.
- In May, the CDC inspected the warehouse and found bacterial and viral agents such as chlamydia, E. Coli, streptococcus pneumonia, hepatitis B and C, herpes 1 and 5, rubella and malaria.
The big picture: Court documents reveal that Prestige Biotech, based in Las Vegas, moved into the warehouse last year after its lab in Fresno was destroyed in a fire.
- Prestige is the successor to Universal Meditech, Inc., a former Fresno-based medical equipment manufacturer which went bankrupt. Prestige was Universal’s largest creditor when the latter filed for bankruptcy.
- Prestige did not have a license to operate in Reedley, and court documents also reveal that the company never contracted with a licensed medical waste hauler, meaning Prestige never disposed of any of the lab waste legally.
- All of the biohazard material has been contained and disposed of properly, according to the county.
What they’re saying: “I’ve been with the department for 30 years, and I don’t recall a similar situation,” Fresno County Public Health Director David Luchini told Mid Valley Times.
- FCDPH Assistant Director Joe Prado told KMPH that the lab was utilizing mice to see if the COVID-19 test kits were testing accurately for the virus.
- “Here at the public health department we operate our own lab, so we are very well versed in the legal requirements and how to maintain and control an infectious agent,” Prado told the TV station. “And there was just a complete absence of those controls in place at the warehouse.”