SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — State Senator Scott Wilk introduced two new pieces of legislation Wednesday in response to CBS13’s year-long investigation into the state’s troubled COVID-19 testing lab.
The investigation gave a voice to brave whistleblowers who risked their careers in the interest of public health and it shined a spotlight on shocking public health failures that it appeared the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) tried to hide.
The legislation transcends COVID and is intended to ensure accountability and transparency long after the pandemic is over.
The first bill, SB 947, would extend whistleblower protections from government employees to include employees of government contractors like PerkinElmer, which was given a $1.7 billion no-bid lab contract and then sued one whistleblower and threatened to sue others.
Wilk also introduced a Constitutional Amendment (SCA 7), which would require approval from the legislature before a no-bid state contract of more than $25 million could be renewed.
The Newsom administration quietly renewed PerkinElmer’s no-bid contract amid ongoing state and federal investigations of the lab, and despite the fact that the lab is still failing to return results in 48 hours, which is required in its contract.
THE COVID LAB: State Secrets Exposed
Unlicensed lab techs asleep while processing COVID-19 samples, test swabs found in lab restrooms, incidents of contamination, wrong results, and tens of thousands of inconclusive COVID tests — those were just the first of many shocking whistleblower revelations from inside California’s $1.7 billion state-funded PerkinElmer COVID testing lab, which was built at the taxpayers’ expense.
The investigation began with one whistleblower and evolved into more than a dozen. Most of them asked to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation. Then, along with their allegations, their fears were confirmed.
PerkinElmer sued Dr. Mahnaz Salem, a former laboratory manager and former lab inspector. She was the only whistleblower to reveal her identity.
“I really want [the] public to know that this lab should not continue operating like this,” said Salem.
The lawsuit didn’t mention our reports. Instead, it alleged Salem and “25 other unnamed defendants” emailed proprietary information in violation of a confidentiality agreement and were using that “information to PerkinElmer’s competitive disadvantage.”
But whistleblowers insisted the documents we received were of no value to competitors and instead exposed a risk to public health.
“Every patient sample deals with somebody’s life,” said one whistleblower.
“The public deserves to know what’s going on in their state lab and everybody deserves to have correct results,” another whistleblower stressed.
The state wouldn’t comment on PerkinElmer’s lawsuit, which many saw as an intimidation tactic.
Meanwhile, we now know that state inspectors had already confirmed the whistleblower allegations. Both state and federal regulators ultimately concluded that the lab posed “immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety” and was “likely to cause serious injury or harm, or death.”
Yet regulators, some who took the medical oath to do no harm, didn’t pause testing, or even warn the public, as problems continued for nearly a year. Instead, they tried to discredit the whistleblowers who did.
“It was all kept under wraps until we had brave whistleblowers come forward,” said Senator Wilk. “God bless them for coming forward, and they do need to be protected.”
That‘s why Wilk said he introduced SB 947, and he also introduced Constitutional Amendment (SCA 7).
Last month, as the Omicron variant surged and kids returned to school from winter break, the PerkinElmer lab only returned one out of five results on time, while similar-sized labs processed 94% of results within 24 hours.
“We have other options, better options at a lower cost and taxpayers are getting ripped off right now,” Wilk said.
This proposed legislation follows a 15-month investigation that prompted state and federal investigations, impacted students, whistleblowers, and millions of Californians who relied on this lab for accurate COVID results.
Watch the CBS News Sacramento special report THE COVID LAB: State Secrets Exposed (below) which reveals the shocking story behind the investigation.
THE COVID LAB: State Secrets Exposed
The Whistleblower Investigation
The Troubled Test
Theranos Trial Reveals Details of Federal Investigation at Troubled CA COVID Lab, No-Bid Contract Renewed
Lab Experts Criticize State’s Response To Risk Of ‘Serious Injury, Harm or Death’ At CA COVID Testing Lab