How CDC Handled Congress’ Probe of China-Tied Lab in California

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Newly released records offer a glimpse of how federal public health officials reacted when questioned by Congress about an illegal, China-tied biolab in California. That lab contained labeled samples of the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as Ebola, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.

The records cover last June, July, and August and include a message from a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning staff that “there is some congressional oversight heading our way.” 

A total of 133 pages of documents make up the first installment of records obtained by The Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project through the Freedom of Information Act as part of an “interim response” to its requests. (The Daily Signal is the news and commentary outlet of The Heritage Foundation.) 

The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic sought information in August on the China-linked research lab discovered in December 2022 in Reedley, California. 

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But another House panel, the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, ultimately issued a scathing report on CDC and other agencies for their handling of the illicit lab.  

The Daily Signal sought comment Thursday morning from the media relations office of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing the documents and requesting context.

“At the request of state and local officials, CDC participated in approximately 40 calls with federal, state, and local partners to support the review of material in the Reedley building,” CDC spokesperson Nick Spinelli responded in a written statement Thursday afternoon.

“After state and local officials notified CDC of concerns in March, the California Department of Public Health determined that no onsite assistance was needed from CDC,” Spinelli told The Daily Signal. “In April, the Department of Public Health requested on-site assistance. We promptly responded and sent a team to the site. CDC was onsite for two and a half days and conducted an extensive review.”

The illegal lab was discovered when a Reedley code enforcement official entered what she thought was an abandoned warehouse. The inspector found lab equipment, medical grade freezers, and mice for experiments. 

The FBI, the CDC, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the California Department of Public Health began investigating the lab and how it operated off the books. Reedley is a small agriculture city in central California, near Fresno.

Officials identified the owner of the lab as Jia Bei Zhu, a Chinese citizen with close ties to corporations run by China’s communist government. Federal authorities arrested Zhu in October and charged him with manufacturing and distributing misbranded medical devices and making false statements to FDA investigators. 

The Justice Department announced a grand jury indictment of  Zhu on Nov. 16, one day after the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party issued a scathing report on the U.S. government’s handling of the China-tied biolab.

Before that, documents show, CDC engaged last June with the office of Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., whose congressional district includes Reedley. 

Kit Divine, legislative assistant to Costa, emailed CDC personnel on June 14, seeking information before a briefing call. 

“Congressman Costa is requesting a briefing from the relevant individuals working on the issue to receive an update on the action(s) taken by your agency and hear the agency’s perspective on the overarching situation,” Divine’s email to CDC said. “My boss also wishes to discuss the larger national security concerns regarding this issue and wants to make sure all the relevant agencies are coordinating with each other. Based on our understanding, staff at FDA, CDC, IRS, and FBI have all been involved with this issue.”

Chris de la Motte Hurst, deputy associate director for policy in CDC’s Office of Readiness and Response, told staffers what the bottom line was for Costa briefings. But CDC redacted that information from an email released among the documents. 

“The BLUF is that [redacted],” Hurst wrote in a June 15 email to CDC colleagues, using a military acronym for the words “bottom line upfront” before her conclusion was redacted from the released document. 

“They continue to be engaged with the partners involved in this investigation via weekly conference calls,” the CDC official wrote. “Please keep the document close hold, but some of the information might be useful context for your outreach.”

In less than two months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was preparing for more.

CDC’s chief of staff, Kate Wolff, sent an email Aug. 2 to staffers, writing: “Hi – it seems like there is some congressional oversight heading our way on this and we need to pull together some additional details on this issue ASAP in the morning.”

Wolff continued: “A few followup questions.” All of her questions, however, were redacted before the documents were released to Heritage’s Oversight Project. 

The next day, Aug. 3, CDC public health analyst Jennifer M. Gaines wrote to staff about the urgency of gaining more information about the lab in California for the pending congressional oversight.

“Our deadline is ASAP,” Gaines said in an email. “ASK: Develop a paper briefing for the director on your joint investigation with California Department of Health, Fresno County, FDA, and FBI in June, 2023. This should be very concise.”

She continued: “Happy to arrange a quick call if you’d like to discuss! I’m also happy to set-up a shared document in Teams so we can work on this together? Let me know.”

Before that, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, sent a letter Aug. 23 to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, seeking details on the Reedley biolab. 

On Aug. 21, Rep. Kevin Kiley, R-Calif., had sent a similar letter of inquiry to HHS’ Becerra about the China-tied lab. HHS forwarded the letters from both congressmen to CDC officials with separate cover memos dated Aug. 24. 

According to one congressional office, the HHS memo was standard operating procedure and CDC ultimately was responsive. 

In November, the separate House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party issued a report on the California lab. 

“It is unacceptable that the CDC, according to accounts of local officials, refused to take a phone call from city and county officials concerned about a biolab found in their region,” the committee report says, adding:

Even if the CDC normally works through state agencies, it could have given the necessary contact information to local officials. It should not require a member of Congress—in this case, Congressman Jim Costa—to personally call the CDC or any other federal agency for them to provide meaningful support.

A CDC spokesperson rejected the committee report’s findings about the Reedley lab owned by Prestige Biotech Inc., or PBI.

“CDC strongly disputes the report’s conclusions critical of the agency,” the spokesperson told Newsweek. “The report includes numerous inaccuracies, including both the charge that CDC did not respond to local requests for aid and the false implication that CDC had the authority to unilaterally investigate or seize samples from PBI’s Reedley building.”

“Indeed,” the spokesperson added, “CDC has and continues to be actively engaged, within its regulatory authorities, in the intergovernmental efforts to address issues surrounding the facility.”

The Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party concluded that the illegal biolab was run by a Chinese citizen, Zhu, who was a top official at a Chinese government-controlled company. 

Zhu was a wanted fugitive in Canada with a $330 million judgment against him in that country. The biolab received millions from Chinese banks, the committee found. 

“Approximately 1,000 mice were kept in inhumane, overcrowded conditions,” the committee report says. “When local officials asked a worker who ‘appeared to be in control’ of the mice, she replied that they were transgenic mice that simulate the human immune system that were ‘genetically engineered to catch and carry the COVID-19 virus.’”

The report notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refused to test any of the samples:

Despite the probability that the unlabeled or coded vials contained additional unknown and dangerous pathogens, CDC officials refused to take any further investigative steps. The fact that they seemingly took the word of biolab operators and noted fraudsters and concluded that the named labels are wholly correct is also strange.

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