The National Institutes of Health defended its decision to delete its record of the genetic sequencing of COVID-19 cases from early in the coronavirus pandemic, apparently done at the request of Chinese researchers.

The revelation was revealed by a U.S. virologist who discovered the information was scrubbed from the NIH database.

This comes as the United States and its allies seek to determine if the virus sprang from a mysterious lab in Wuhan, China, which stymied an earlier investigation by the World Health Organization dismissing the lab theory.

“Here I identify a data set containing SARS-CoV-2 sequences from early in the Wuhan epidemic that has been deleted from the NIH’s Sequence Read Archive,” noted Jesse Bloom of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in a scientific paper released Tuesday. “I recover the deleted files from the Google Cloud, and reconstruct partial sequences of 13 early epidemic viruses.”

Bloom added his analysis cast doubt on the alternative theory the virus originated in a so-called “wet market” where exotic foods and live animals are sold.

An NIH spokesperson told the Washington Examiner the request to remove the data in June 2020, which had been posted three months earlier, has been reviewed in light of Bloom’s finding. The spokesperson added that “submitting investigators hold the rights to their data and can request withdrawal of the data.”

When asked who within the Chinese government asked NIH to delete the COVID-19 genetic data from its database, the institute told the Washington Examiner it would “have to submit a [Freedom of Information Act] request.”

The March 2020 paper that initially identified the sequence had 15 Chinese authors, 11 of whom worked for Wuhan University, and at least one worked for the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The June paper linked to the NIH and swapped in for the original listed all of the same authors and added three more from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. That paper did not include full gene sequencing information related to COVID-19.

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A State Department fact sheet released in January contended Wuhan lab researchers “conducted experiments involving the bat coronavirus identified by Wuhan virologists in January 2020 as its closest sample to COVID-19″ and that the lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses.”

The fact sheet also asserted the lab “engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military” and that lab workers became sick with coronavirus-like symptoms in autumn 2019.

Bloom noted in his paper the first reports outside of China at the end of December 2019 emphasized the wet market theory, but “this theory became increasingly tenuous as it was learned that many early cases had no connection to the market.”

“In the case of Wuhan, genomic epidemiology has also proven frustratingly inconclusive,” Bloom wrote. “Some of the problem is simply limited data: despite the fact that Wuhan has advanced virology labs, there is only patchy sampling of SARS-CoV-2 sequences from the first months of the city’s explosive outbreak.”

The U.S. virologist identified and recovered the deleted dataset of partial SARS-CoV-2 sequences from outpatient samples collected early in the Wuhan epidemic, which he said shows the early Wuhan samples don’t match the viruses that caused the outbreak.

Bloom explained his findings on Twitter, saying, “First, the fact this dataset was deleted should make us skeptical that all other relevant early Wuhan sequences have been shared … Second major implication is that it may be possible to obtain additional information about early spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan even if efforts for more on-the-ground investigations are stymied.”

“It is not common to withdraw error-free data. I can think of no defensible reason to do so,” Richard Ebright, a chemistry and chemical biology professor at Rutgers University, told the Washington Examiner. “The findings provide additional evidence against the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 entered humans at Huanan Seafood Market. The findings also provide evidence of deliberate obfuscation of early events in the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan in the fall of 2019 and evidence of deliberate obstruction of investigation of those events.”

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Sen. Josh Hawley called deletion of the sequence at the behest of Chinese officials a possible “cover-up.”

“I write with grave concern about the latest allegations of a COVID-19 cover-up,” Hawley wrote in a letter to NIH Director Francis Collins and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci. “New public reporting suggests Chinese researchers directed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to purge gene sequences of COVID-19 cases from a key NIH database. The deleted information could be critical for understanding how the virus spread and where it came from. These deletions are alarming and merit a full congressional and law enforcement investigation.”

The Missouri Republican rejected NIH’s explanation that submitting investigators hold the rights to their data.

“That’s not what the NIH says in its public materials. It says removal of information is disfavored and is only permitted pursuant to specific protocols that do not appear to have been followed here,” Hawley wrote. “But moreover, why the NIH would agree to remove key data about COVID-19 in the midst of the most severe public health crisis in a century is unfathomable.”

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Tags: News, Coronavirus, China, NIH, Donald Trump, Joe Biden

Original Author: Jerry Dunleavy

Original Location: NIH defends deleting COVID-19 genetic data pointing to lab leak origin



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