Sheriff Villanueva won't use county's COVID test provider over its alleged China ties

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  • Alex Villanueva
    American politician
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva briefs the media about the latest safety precautions the department is taking regarding COVID-19 at the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles on Monday, March 16, 2020. ( Photo by Nick Agro / For The Times)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Monday that his department will no longer use the county's coronavirus testing provider. (Nick Agro / For The Times)

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 claimed DNA data obtained through tests are "not guaranteed to be safe and secure from foreign governments" and said FBI officials advised him at the briefing that genetic information the company collects is likely to be shared with the Chinese government. Fulgent Genetics, he alleged in the letter, has "strong ties" with Chinese technology and genomics companies, but he did not elaborate on what those ties are.

Villanueva said the county's top attorney and chief executive also attended the recent FBI briefing at the agency's Los Angeles office. An FBI spokesperson declined to comment when asked to confirm what was discussed at the meeting.

Fulgent's chief commercial officer, Brandon Perthuis, dismissed the sheriff's allegations as untrue. In a statement Tuesday, Perthuis wrote that the U.S.-based company was founded and is led by American citizens. He said the company does not share personal data about people who are tested with the Chinese government and that the company does not use samples collected during tests to sequence people's unique DNA structure.

Testing samples, he added, are destroyed by incineration after 48 hours.

"Personal genetic information collected by Fulgent through its genetic testing business (which, again, is NOT collected in RT-PCR COVID19 testing) is treated with utmost privacy," Perthuis wrote.

He added that Fulgent met with L.A. County leaders last month to address their concerns.

"These representatives from the L.A. County sheriff’s office were made aware that Fulgent does not collect any personal DNA in connection with COVID testing and disregarded all of Fulgent’s valid points from this conversation in writing this letter to the L.A. [County] Board of Supervisors," Perthuis said.

County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she was invited to the FBI briefing by text message 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 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.

County 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.

Supervisor Hilda Solis said in a statement Tuesday that there's no indication employee data has been compromised. She added: "If utilizing another testing platform to upload their vaccination status would help bring the Sheriff's Department vaccination rate from 53% to the countywide department rate of 81%, then that is a possibility I am willing to entertain."

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.

The Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which represents rank-and-file deputies, called Tuesday on Villanueva and the Board of Supervisors to "meet immediately to discuss the issues concerning the security of employees' information."

"In the meantime, ALADS will be working with the sheriff and Los Angeles County to come up with reasonable policies and procedures," the statement said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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