Sheriff Villanueva won’t use county’s coronavirus testing provider over alleged ties to China

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Monday that his department will no longer use the county’s coronavirus testing provider over concerns about the company’s alleged ties to the Chinese government.

In a letter to the Board of Supervisors, Villanueva said the FBI contacted him last week and held a briefing the day after Thanksgiving to relay “the serious risks associated with allowing Fulgent to conduct COVID-19 testing” of county employees.

Villanueva said that the DNA data obtained are “not guaranteed to be safe and secure from foreign governments” and that the FBI advised the information is likely to be shared with China. Fulgent Genetics, he said in the letter, has “strong ties” with Chinese technology and genomics companies, but he did not elaborate on what those ties are.

Villanueva said he attended a briefing at the FBI’s L.A. field office along with the county’s top attorney and chief executive. An FBI spokesperson declined to comment when asked to confirm what was discussed at the meeting.

L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she was invited to the briefing by text but could not attend because she was out of town for Thanksgiving.

“From what I heard about the briefing, there was no evidence at all, zero, that Fulgent had breached anything or had any relationship with the Chinese government that was harmful to the information that might be present in the samples that they’re testing,” she said.

It’s unclear whether the FBI met with any of the other federal, state or local agencies that use Fulgent.

“We have no evidence they met with anybody besides us,” Kuehl said.

The county’s contract with Fulgent prohibits the disclosure of data collected without the county’s written permission and requires that the company store and process data in the continental United States, the county said in a statement Monday.

Federal agencies including the Department of Homeland Security also contract with Fulgent, which is certified by the Food and Drug Administration, accredited by the College of American Pathologists and licensed by the California Department of Public Health, the statement said. The company is based in Temple City.

“If a credible threat is confirmed, or if the federal government takes any steps to rescind its certification, we will take immediate action to ensure no employee data is misused,” the county statement said.

In March, Fulgent said it was awarded a contract by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide genomic sequencing of random positive samples.

Villanueva said in his letter that Fulgent makes “no attempt to disguise the fact that they will use the genetic information obtained in future studies.”

“Entering into a no-bid contract with Fulgent Genetics and allowing them to have the DNA data obtained from mandatory COVID-19 testing, for unknown purposes, has shattered all confidence my personnel have in this entire process under the county mandate,” Villanueva wrote.

County employees are required to register their vaccination status with Fulgent, and those who are not vaccinated are required to submit to regular testing.

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Professional Assn., a union with about 1,850 members, sued over the registration mandate, saying its members are being forced to turn over confidential medical and peace officer personnel information.

Villanueva said the Sheriff’s Department would use its own registration system and work with vetted testing companies that are not associated with Fulgent.

Supervisor Janice Hahn said Monday that Villanueva should focus on enforcing the county’s employee vaccination mandate.

“I wish the sheriff would get his deputies vaccinated instead of worrying about how the unvaccinated get tested,” she said in a statement.

Villanueva has made dramatic claims that the mandate would trigger a mass exodus of employees. As of earlier this month, about 53% of 16,070 Sheriff’s Department employees, both sworn and civilian, had received at least one dose of a vaccine.

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