Zieba, Fresno County officials respond to federal subpoena

City Manager Nicole Zieba joins other Fresno County agencies as they welcome congressional investigation into illegal lab found in Reedley

Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba comments on her interaction with Federal Investigators as part of the recently issued Congressional Subpoena regarding the Reedley Lab. (Kenny Goodman)
Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba comments on her interaction with Federal Investigators as part of the recently issued Congressional Subpoena regarding the Reedley Lab. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published September 15, 2023  • 
10:00 am

FRESNO – Members of the Fresno County Department of Health, three Fresno County Board of Supervisors, the Fresno County Administrative Officer, and the city manager of Reedley held a press conference in the Fresno County Hall of Records on Sept. 13 to discuss a federal subpoena that was issued regarding the illegal lab in Reedley and to ask Congress to take immediate action to create federal oversight for privately funded labs.

On Sept. 6, three attorneys from the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party arrived in Reedley to serve Zieba with a subpoena. Unlike in the movies or on television, Zieba knew in advance she was going to be served.

“They called me in advance to tell me they were coming and not to be alarmed by the subpoena. The technical service was over email, so nothing so dramatic, as I was expecting,” Zieba said.

Zieba said she could not discuss the particulars of the subpoena, other than to say she was happy Congress was taking an active interest in the events that have unfolded in Reedley beginning last December.

Speaking at the press conference, Zieba said, “The news we came out to share with you today is, yes, I have been served with a congressional subpoena. By issuing a subpoena, they are able to access documents the city has that would not be disclosable otherwise during an investigation.”

Paul Nerland, Fresno County Administrative Officer, welcomes the media to the Congressional Subpoena press conference. (Kenny Goodman)

Paul Nerland, Fresno County administrative officer, opened the press conference. Like Zieba, Nerland welcomed the subpoena – Zieba was the only government official to be subpoenaed.

“We want to emphasize today that this action by the committee is a good thing. We are pleased with congressional scrutiny, and an investigation of how an unlicensed lab like this can exist absent federal or state oversight,” Nerland said.

He added, “We are not looking for knee jerk or Band-Aid solutions, but, rather, meaningful, long-term solutions that actually fix this problem, not just in the county of Fresno, but in the US.”

THERE IS A GAP

Assistant Public Health Director Joe Prado acknowledged that lack of oversight on every government level allowed Prestige Biotech, Inc. to operate undetected for months in the abandoned warehouse on I Street in Reedley.

“Privately funded research labs have no regulation or no oversight,” Prado said. However, he also noted there is a solution.

“The answer was quite simple. Today, we do regulate labs in the U.S. – we do it through CLIA. CLIA provides the infrastructure to provide the oversight for these types of labs,” he said.

CLIA stands for Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments. It is a 1988 federal regulation that applies standards to all U.S. facilities or sites that test human specimens for health assessment, or to diagnose, prevent or treat disease.

Prado said he would like to see CLIA’s regulations expanded to cover private labs. He added that loopholes exist at the federal level because U.S. laws allow private labs to exist without federal oversight.

Fresno County Assistant Director Joe Parado speaks on behalf of the county and praises their partners for their efforts in the Reedley Lab investigation. (Kenny Goodman)

“There is specific language in the code of federal regulations that excludes research labs,” he said. “Let’s delete that paragraph, (because) it’s not that simple. I am sure there is a little more to it. The U.S. code needs amending as well. These are the solutions we’re putting on the table for addressing this issue here.”

REEDLEY’S TEMPORARY MORATORIUM

At its Sept. 12 meeting, the Reedley City Council voted in favor of implementing a temporary moratorium on new labs.

“Our city is placing a temporary moratorium on any new labs or warehouses coming into our city that have a biosafety level (BSL) 2-4,” said Zieba. She noted that CDC categorizes labs by BSL 1, 2, 3 and 4, with Level 1 being the least dangerous and Level 4 being the other extreme, which includes diseases like the Ebola virus anthrax. 

“I do not think we would be a BSL 4 in Reedley; nonetheless, we are implementing a temporary moratorium on any lab that could have any infectious disease,” she said. 

PROPOSED COUNTY ORDINANCE

Fresno County Public Health Director David Luchini said the county is working on an ordinance that would expand local government’s oversight on private labs and also put into place mechanisms to investigate and track these labs and their activities. He said when passed, the ordinance would have wide-ranging implications.

Fresno County Public Health Director Paul Luchini speaks at the press conference regarding the Federal Subpoena issued to the City of Reedley. (Kenny Goodman)

“At the county level, the Department of Public Health would do annual inspections. We’re going to be evaluating the environmental controls that are in place and should be in place for BSL 2-4,” Luchini said. “In addition (we’ll ask): do they (lab owners) have the right permits? Are they disposing of their waste properly? Reviewing their infectious agents because infectious agents dictate the biosafety level.”

Supervisor Nathan Magsig, who attended the press conference, said the ordinance may be considered by the board in October or November.

Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig answers reporter questions at the Congressional Subpoena press conference. (Kenny Goodman)

FEDERAL OVERSIGHT

The recurring theme of the press conference was the need for federal oversight and regulations regarding private labs.

“A federal fix is needed,” Nerland said. “A local solution would be a patchwork. It deserves a federal coordinator.”

Nerland said when meetings following the lab’s discovery were convened, there was no federal agency to take the lead. He noted there were 14 agencies involved, but the coordination was at the local level. 

“We feel that should have been and should be in the future (coordination) at the federal level,” he said.

Congressman Jim Costa’s office issued a press release following the press conference.

“The first priority since I have been involved on behalf of the City of Reedley is to ensure that public health and safety are protected,” Costa said. “In issuing these congressional subpoenas, Congress is taking an important step to further collect information and address this matter. It is my hope that we work in a bipartisan, coordinated manner to fully understand the scope of this lab and prevent any future labs like this one from operating illegally in our communities.”

Darren Fraser
Reporter