Recent shocking revelations about a secret Chinese lab operating illegally in California and experimenting with COVID-19 and other deadly pathogens have prompted action from two Republican-led House committees, perhaps marking the beginning of a more robust congressional effort to uncover the extent of Beijing’s reach into the United States.
According to an Associated Press report published last month, last December, Jesalyn Harper, a code enforcement officer in the small central California town of Reedley, was responding to a complaint about vehicles parked in the loading dock of a warehouse when she noticed an unusual sight – a garden hose sticking out of one of the side walls.
Harper knocked on the door and was greeted by a woman in a lab coat, who explained that she was from China and that the owner of the warehouse still lived in China. Walking through the building, Harper reportedly saw “dozens of refrigerators and ultralow-temperature freezers hooked to illegal wiring; vials of blood and jars of urine in shelves and plastic containers; and about 1,000 white lab mice being kept in crowded, soiled containers.”
The sight alarmed Harper enough to report her findings to the FBI, touching off a months long joint investigation by local, state, and federal law enforcement into the lab.
In March, investigators found that the lab contained more than 20 infectious diseases, including E. coli, coronavirus, malaria, hepatitis B and C, dengue, chlamydia, human herpes, rubella and HIV. How exactly the lab acquired the pathogens and what it was planning to do with them remains unclear.
According to NBC News, the tenant of the warehouse was Prestige BioTech, “a company registered in Nevada and unlicensed for business in California.” But investigators have been unable to nail down a precise headquarters for the company anywhere in Nevada. Court documents show that the only addresses Prestige representatives gave to officials were empty offices or unverified Chinese addresses.
In July, law enforcement finally shut down the lab and disposed of all its biological materials.
But while the illegal Prestige lab is no longer in operation, the incident has heightened concerns that Chinese-linked entities may be operating more illicit biolabs with unknown and potentially nefarious purposes.
In response, House Republicans are demanding more answers from the Biden administration and California investigators on both the Reedley lab and what federal and state law enforcement authorities are doing to identify other such operations.
Last week, the House Select Committee on China issued its first subpoena in relation to the incident, ordering the city of Reedley to turn over more documents detailing their findings. According to Politico, a person close to the China House Committee stated that there were “troubling gaps in safeguards that allowed the clandestine facility to operate with impunity, as well as serious deficiencies in the federal government’s response.”
Since Republicans formed the committee in January, it has been relatively quiet about its investigations, particularly as the GOP’s investigation into the Biden family’s foreign business dealings has heated up. But the public outcry over the illegal Reedley lab could be a prime opportunity for Republicans to ramp up pressure on Biden to do more to counteract blatant violations of U.S. law and sovereignty by Chinese entities.
The Republican-led House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, chaired by Ohio Rep. Brad Wenstrup, has also announced its own investigation into the lab. “As mounting intelligence and evidence supports that COVID-19 likely originated at a lab in Wuhan, China, conducting a thorough investigation into Prestige Biotech’s illegal bio-lab on U.S. soil is crucial to protecting America’s national security and preventing future outbreaks and pandemics,” Wenstrup said in a statement.
Wenstrup also asked Biden’s Health and Human Services department and FBI to hand over their findings on the Reedley lab. “We are committed to investigating the origin of COVID-19, but also assessing the federal government’s ability to keep America safe from biological threats,” Wenstrup wrote to the two agencies.
The lab’s discovery has hit particularly close to home for Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who represents the district just next door. “This is very disturbing. I met with a number of leaders here from county to city and others about this what could be concerning about this, is what was going on in that lab,” McCarthy said following the latest round of revelations in August. “My concern is to get to the bottom of what happened here, but also look at where is this happening in other parts of this country as well.”
With tensions between Washington and Beijing continuing to mount, more discoveries like this as a result of House Republicans’ investigations could ratchet up the pressure even further.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with more than a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.
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