An Illegal Chinese Biolab Containing Infectious Diseases Operated in California. The Feds Ignored It for Months. 

Congressional probe warns of ‘profound threat’ to U.S. homeland

Examples of pathogen-labeled containers from the Reedley Biolab. (City of Reedley/House China Committee)
November 16, 2023

A biolab illicitly run by a Chinese national in California contained traces of coronavirus, HIV, malaria, and other infectious diseases, but federal authorities spent months ignoring pleas from local officials to shut the site down, according to a report from congressional investigators.

The lab was discovered in December 2022, when officers in Reedley, California, a rural town of 26,000 residents, accidentally stumbled on the nondescript warehouse. Once inside, "several individuals who identified themselves as PRC nationals'' were seen working "with thousands of vials of biological substances," according to a months-long investigation by the House Select Committee on China published Thursday and provided to the Washington Free Beacon.

The makeshift lab—run by a Chinese national—contained live mice and freezers filled with improperly stored "pathogens and other unknown biological and chemical substances." It was determined the lab was housing a witch’s brew of infectious diseases, including HIV, the coronavirus, "infectious parasites," and a storage area marked "Ebola." While local officials in Reedley contacted the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to report the findings, the federal government spent months ignoring the city’s pleas for assistance and only became involved after a member of Congress began applying pressure earlier this year.

The discovery of the lab, and the federal government’s slow response, "presents a grave national security risk that could be exploited in the future," according to the congressional committee’s findings. It is unknown if other unlicensed China-tied biolabs are operating in the United States and what types of diseases they could be experimenting with under unsafe conditions, congressional investigators said. If the pathogens discovered in the Reedley lab leaked, an untold number of Americans could have fallen ill.

Authorities determined the lab was run by Jiabei "Jesse" Zhu, a Chinese national who had "previously stolen millions of dollars of intellectual property from American companies and was part of an ongoing transnational criminal enterprise with ties to the PRC for which he was ultimately charged in federal court," according to the report.

During its months-long investigation into the matter, congressional investigators found the CDC ignored in-depth reports about the lab’s activities and then performed an inadequate review of the site.

The federal agency’s conduct prevented many of the substances found in the lab from being analyzed, and investigators do not know exactly what was being tested at the lab.

After local and state authorities discovered the lab and its contents, they reached out to the CDC beginning in March of this year.

"Local officials spent months repeatedly trying to obtain assistance from the CDC, both directly and through" the California Department of Public Health, investigators determined. "According to local officials, the CDC refused to speak with them and, on a number of occasions, it was reported by local officials that the CDC hung up on them mid-conversation."

Other federal agencies capable of handling biohazardous materials also ignored the city’s requests for assistance.

The CDC arrived at the site in May, after Rep. Jim Costa (D., Calif.), the city’s member of Congress, began applying pressure.

Once there, authorities discovered a host of lethal diseases, including "‘at least 20 potentially infectious agents,’ including HIV, Tuberculosis, and the deadliest known form of Malaria."

However, "CDC officials confirmed that the CDC made this list of pathogens based solely on the labels that were placed on samples," according to the report. "The CDC did not test these samples to assess whether the listed labels were correct or otherwise in a cipher that the workers used for a more dangerous pathogen." The CDC also did not test vials labeled "COVID."

The federal agency’s failure to investigate the lab left "local officials unable to assess the danger to the City of Reedley community, or inform the community about what steps, if any, it should take to protect public safety," investigators determined.

"At a minimum," the House committee said, "the Reedley Biolab shows the profound threat that unlicensed and unknown biolabs pose to our country. At worst, this investigation revealed significant gaps in our nation’s defenses and pathogen-related regulations that present a grave national security risk that could be exploited in the future."