‘Shock after shock’: A visit to China’s secret biolab in California

‘Shock after shock’: A visit to China’s secret biolab in California

In the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, the city of Reedley is known locally as the “world’s fruit basket.” They say more fresh fruit is grown here than any other place on Earth.

But it’s what was going on inside a dilapidated warehouse in the center of town that thrust this small agricultural community into the nation’s spotlight.

“It was literally shock after shock after shock,” Jesalyn Harper, Reedley’s only full-time code enforcement officer, told Scripps News. She said it all started when she received a tip that cars were parking outside a building which she thought was vacant.

So, she knocked on the door.

“There were three women that answered the door,” Harper said. “They appeared to be of Asian descent, possibly Chinese. They were all wearing basic PPE, white lab coat, gloves and surgical masks.”

When she walked inside, she was stunned by what she saw. There was blood and other bodily fluids in Gatorade bottles labeled in Mandarin, samples of at least 20 potentially infectious agents including malaria, dengue fever, and COVID-19 — and a pungent odor from what turned out to be nearly 1,000 mice.

“I started to get nervous because it started to go into the realm of ‘This is a lab,’” she said. “And it’s scary to think that something like this could be hidden in plain sight.”

Her discovery launched some 15 investigations across local, state and federal agencies — and sparked conspiracy theories that a Chinese biological weapons lab had taken root in rural America.

“Our local politicians are out there terming it Wuhan 2.0,” said Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba. As officials scrambled to make sense of what Harper had found, it was quickly apparent to Zieba that no one at the lab wanted locals to know they were there.

“They moved in under the cover of night into Reedley,” she said. “And no one, not even the businesses across the street that we talked to, no one knew anything was happening inside this building.”

No one knew who was behind it, either. Scripps News’ search for answers led to court records that listed a company called Universal Meditech as the lab’s owner. Not a single associate responded to phone calls or emails. So, we found their company address through California state records and drove to their Fresno offices.

When we arrived, we found a modern building in stark contrast to the run-down warehouse in Reedley. It was surrounded by security cameras made by a Chinese surveillance technology firm called Hikvision, which is now banned from selling its products in the U.S. for national security reasons.

“Universal Meditech — who is in charge of Universal Meditech?” Scripps News national security correspondent Sasha Ingber asked Zieba. 

“Boy, that’s the grand question right now, because this company has been able to play so many shell games and create so much misdirection in everything,” Zieba responded. “We know that that they’re sending us down rabbit holes and some wild goose chases. If we find prosecutable offenses, who in fact, are we going to be prosecuting?”

As Scripps News dug further to try to answer that question, we uncovered FDA records detailing medical supplies that Universal Meditech received from a China-based firm called Ai De. That company, Scripps News learned through a collaboration with open-source intelligence research group Strike Source, is owned by Yibai, another Chinese business whose leaders are members of China’s Communist Party. Scripps News found their portraits prominently featured on a Shanghai stock exchange website.

China’s connection to the lab in Reedley also captured the attention of Congress.

In November, a House committee released a report identifying the man behind the secret lab in Reedley as David He, who we had tried to contact months before. He was arrested this past October by federal agents in a sting operation for allegedly making false statements and misbranding medical devices. The House report claimed he entered the U.S. as a fugitive and his real name is Jiabei Zhu. The report said in the past he was convicted of stealing $240 million in U.S. intellectual property related to the cattle industry, all to benefit China’s Communist Party.

For Anna Puglisi, a former U.S. national counterintelligence officer for East Asia, the revelations about Zhu and his lab in Reedley weren’t surprising. The efforts of China’s Communist party, she told us, go way beyond traditional espionage and are deliberately carried out in more remote parts of this country.

“China looks beyond the national and they do look to the state and local. It’s easier to operate,” she said. “We’re not used to dealing with issues like this at the state and local level. And so it really requires a raising of awareness of how China is targeting different parts of our society.”

What China’s lab was targeting with so many dangerous pathogens remains a mystery, but Puglisi told Scripps News its purpose may have been to glean medical research.

“One of the policies that we’ve seen in place for several decades is called Serve in Place,” she said. “The whole idea [is] that you can serve the Chinese Communist Party without returning to China.” She said the U.S. system was set up to counter the Soviets, “things that are illegal, have direct military application, or involve intelligence officers — that doesn’t fit how China targets us.”

This wouldn’t be the first time that Beijing has used the suburbs of California in this way. Scripps News has learned that in the early 2000s, Chinese researchers were assembling optical devices in the basements of homes there, and attempting to send them back to China in defiance of export bans.

Nearly a year after the lab in Reedley was busted, no one has determined that what happened here caused any harm. But for Jesalyn Harper, her chance discovery has opened her eyes and she believes Reedley should serve as a wake-up call for other towns in America.

“There is a really good possibility that there are other labs like this operating all over the United States,” Harper said. “And it’s just no one has found them yet.”