An American research scientist reported on Tuesday that Chinese researchers deleted genetic sequencing data for COVID-19 samples from a U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) database. The deletions highlight the extent of China’s efforts to stymie research into the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jesse Bloom, a virologist from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, posted his findings this week on a public server for preprints, or scientific papers awaiting peer review. Bloom discovered that a data set containing SARS-COV-2 genetic sequences from early in the Wuhan outbreak was deleted from the NIH’s Sequence Read Archive, a permanent archive of sequencing data. While the data is no longer available in the NIH database, Bloom was able to reconstruct partial sequences from deleted files still available in Google Cloud.
The NIH issued a statement explaining that Chinese researchers submitted the data in March 2020 and asked for the deletion in June 2020 because the sequences had been updated and would be submitted to an unspecified database. “Submitting investigators hold the rights to their data and can request withdrawal of the data,” NIH explained. Bloom noted on Twitter that the sequences are not included in China’s own sequence database.
It is unclear if Bloom’s research will provide insight into whether the virus spread because of human contact with an infected animal or from a lab accident. Bloom argues that the deleted sequences show that samples from patients linked to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan are not representative of early cases of the virus.
Bloom notes that there “is no scientific reason for the deletion” of the NIH data set, and it “therefore seems likely the sequences were deleted to obscure their existence” as part of an effort by Beijing to limit evidence of the early spread of the pandemic — evidence essential to understanding its origins.
President Joe Biden said following the G7 summit that Beijing has not allowed access to Chinese laboratories to assist with the COVID-19 origins investigation. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan highlighted the importance of additional data to understanding the origins of COVID-19. Accordingly, the G7 countries “pledged that they would have their national systems try to share analysis and information … both with [the] international investigation and with each other,” Sullivan said. He noted that China — which is not part of the G7 — has withheld “original data” from the World Health Organization (WHO).
In light of Bloom’s findings, the Biden administration should swiftly order an investigation to determine whether additional content was removed from the NIH database and whether the agency followed all appropriate procedures.
Bloom’s research also shows that Beijing does not control all of the scientific data related to COVID-19’s origins, so there may be creative ways to circumvent Chinese interference.
Some information is already available about what Beijing is hiding. The March 2021 WHO-China joint report on the pandemic’s origins noted that China is not providing access to more than 76,000 records from patients who had illnesses similar to COVID-19 in the earliest phase of the pandemic. Likewise, Beijing has not allowed sampling of blood donations from that period, which could help determine whether the virus was circulating in the fall of 2019.
The State Department also issued a fact sheet just before Biden took office, explaining that Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers were sick with seasonal illnesses or COVID-19 in autumn 2019. That information has not been disputed by the Biden administration.
So far, the administration has not explained how it will increase the pressure on China to share the critical scientific data Beijing is now withholding. But the recovery of deleted records from the NIH database shows there may be information beyond the reach of the Chinese Communist Party that could help pinpoint the origins of the pandemic.
Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s China Program and International Organizations Program. He previously served in the U.S. government for more than 19 years, most recently as senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense at the National Security Council. For more analysis from Anthony, the China Program, and the International Organizations Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Anthony on Twitter @NatSecAnthony. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.