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Head of illicit lab that sparked conspiracy theories arrested, accused of misbranding medical tests

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The head of an illegal Fresno County medical testing lab whose underground setup fueled wild conspiracy theories was arrested Thursday, federal prosecutors announced.

Jia Bei Zhu, who went by a number of aliases, was busted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for running the Universal Meditech Inc. lab that manufactured and sold hundreds of thousands of COVID-19, HIV and pregnancy test kits from late 2020 to March 2023 without the required authorizations, according to federal agents.

Zhu’s lab in Reedley first raised eyebrows in 2022, when a local code enforcement officer discovered it was stocked with vials of blood, jars of urine and about 1,000 white mice living in sullied containers.

Officials investigated, shut down the lab and ordered the mice euthanized. But after a local news story suggested the mice were bred to carry COVID-19, baseless rumors started flying online that the lab was connected to the Chinese government and could be part of preparations for a biological attack.

Refrigerators and other medical lab equipment inside a now-shuttered lab.

Refrigerators and other equipment inside a now-shuttered medical lab that officials say was operating illegally.

(Courtesy of city of Reedley / Associated Press)

But the explanation was more benign.

The mice were found not to carry COVID-19. They were actually bred to grow the COVID-19 antibody cells used for test kits.

But authorities allege that the lab was skirting FDA laws and that Zhu, 62, made false statements during the investigation, resulting in him being charged with lying to a federal agent.

“The disarray at the Reedley lab led to the glare of publicity [Zhu] was trying to avoid, and the ensuing investigation unraveled his efforts to circumvent the requirements that are designed to ensure that medical devices are safe and effective,” said Phillip Talbert, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California.

The Reedley lab was not the first time Zhu’s companies courted trouble.

In 2016, he was the owner of a Canadian company, IND Diagnostic Inc., that was ordered to pay $300 million “for misappropriating technology related to the separation of sex chromosomes from bull semen,” according to American federal agents.

Just before his arrest, Zhu was preparing to sue Fresno County for shutting down his lab, the Fresno Bee reported.

The lab head was reportedly seeking $50 million — alleging the county had wrongly seized medical equipment, including freezers and refrigerators stocked with biological goods.

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