Illegal Reedley lab incident sparks congressional action

Congressman Jim Costa announces the Preventing Illegal Laboratories and Protecting Public Health Act of 2024 from Reedley City Hall, aiming to prevent illegal biomedical lab operations across the U.S.

Reedley’s City Council members join Congressman Jim Costa and his announcement of the Preventing Illegal Laboratories and Protecting Public Health Act of 2024. (Kenny Goodman)
Reedley’s City Council members join Congressman Jim Costa and his announcement of the Preventing Illegal Laboratories and Protecting Public Health Act of 2024. (Kenny Goodman)
Serena Bettis
Published April 23, 2024  • 
5:00 pm

REEDLEY – For what began as a troubling and complicated series of events in Reedley last spring, the story of the illegal biomedical lab discovered at 850 I St. has rounded off with federal legislation meant to ensure it never happens again.

Congressman Jim Costa spoke from the Reedley City Council chambers on April 23 to announce the Preventing Illegal Laboratories and Protecting Public Health Act of 2024, which he plans to introduce in the House of Representatives soon. Costa said the bill is the first step to closing gaps in the federal regulation of biolabs and biomedical agents like those found in Reedley.

“This is about public health and safety, and the city of Reedley is to be commended for the way in which they responded and acted,” Costa said. “That’s why we are taking the lead to address this matter, so that it doesn’t happen in the future to other communities like the city of Reedley.” 

Costa’s legislation takes into account direct feedback from the city and Fresno County, as well as the findings of the investigation into the matter that the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) conducted last fall. 

Filling the gaps

The bill would require a few key items that Fresno County Department of Public Health (FCDPH) Assistant Director Joe Prado said would have helped prevent and address the Reedley lab.

The first portion of the bill aims to prevent any biolab from being able to operate under the radar by requiring sellers of highly infectious agents to maintain logbooks of all sales and buyer information for a minimum of five years. This will help identify labs that require oversight and also inform local health departments of what they may be walking into when they conduct an inspection, Prado said. 

Second, the bill will require regular evaluations of high-containment labs — meaning labs with highly infectious diseases — on a regular basis and would designate a single federal official to lead that overview. The bill would create a “Public Health and Biosecurity Team” as the sole point of contact for local and state agencies to answer questions and handle biosecurity issues.

Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba said that by having one team take point on these kinds of situations, they will avoid the back-and-forth and confusion between multiple agencies that Reedley experienced, which significantly slowed down the lab abatement process.

Reedley City Manager Nicole Zeiba expresses her gratitude for the efforts of Congressman Jim Costa and his announcement of the Preventing Illegal Laboratories and Protecting Public Health Act of 2024. (Kenny Goodman)

Costa added that the minimal oversight these types of labs had previously is a national security issue as well as a public health and safety issue, and referenced the “silos” of information between federal agencies that contributed to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks not being prevented. 

“We are being attacked daily by our adversaries in China and Russia … in ways that undermine our financial security, our electrical grid and other ways in which foreign countries are trying to undermine the stability and the security of the United States,” Costa said. “This is an area where, in fact, they could also pursue activities that would accrue to the harm of our country.”

Moving forward

If it passes, the legislation would also require the Public Health and Biosecurity Team to conduct a feasibility study on establishing a database of existing high-containment labs in the country, and making that database accessible to both state and local agencies. 

The database would identify the lab owners, the status of the lab’s required licensing or certifications under federal, state or local laws and any legal violations committed by the lab and disciplinary actions taken. 

Prado said the feasibility study and its outcome is an important piece to look at if the legislation passes because it would allow the country to “take a step back” and look at how to address issues related to high-containment labs.

Costa said he’d like for the legislation to be signed into law before the end of the year. Although heightened party divisions have been holding up important legislation, he feels with bipartisan support for this bill there could be action taken on it more swiftly and he is pursuing ways to expedite the process. 

Congressman Jim Costa announces the Preventing Illegal Laboratories and Protecting Public Health Act of 2024. (Kenny Goodman)

For example, Costa said he is reaching out to California’s senators to see if there would be interest in introducing a similar bill in the Senate, which can help move things along. Additionally, he said he has spoken to members of the House committee that the bill will be sent to, with the hope that a hearing on it will be scheduled in the next few months. Whether or not it will get off the House floor before the August recess “remains to be seen,” he said.

Both Costa and Zieba said that a public health crisis should never be politicized, and Zieba referenced a previous press conference in which she was “urging Congress not to let this go; that we have a problem in our country that can be fixed and it’s a nonpartisan issue.” 

“It doesn’t matter if you are Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, a Green – it doesn’t matter what you are, you don’t want deadly pathogens next door to your family and loved ones in the communities that you represent,” Zieba said. “If there ever was a nonpartisan issue that should be able to be adopted in D.C. and passed in D.C., it’s this one.”

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter