The top official at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has admitted to federal lawmakers that the agency hid the early genomic sequences of COVID-19 that it had uncovered after Chinese scientists requested the move.
Acting director Lawrence Tabak told a House Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday that NIH “eliminated from public view” the data that had come from a lab in Wuhan, China, the city where the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 first emerged.
But Tabak said that “researchers can still access it via an archaic ‘tape drive,’” the New York Post reported.
The admission followed a Vanity Fair report that traced an evolutionary biologist named Jesse D. Bloom’s actions as he tried to “dig deep and discover the truth.” Bloom wrote a scientific paper and gave it to top U.S. immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, setting off a firestorm.
“Bloom’s paper was the product of detective work he’d undertaken after noticing that a number of early SARS-CoV-2 genomic sequences mentioned in a published paper from China had somehow vanished without a trace,” Vanity Fair reported. “The sequences, which map the nucleotides that give a virus its unique genetic identity, are key to tracking when the virus emerged and how it might have evolved. In Bloom’s view, their disappearance raised the possibility that the Chinese government might be trying to hide evidence about the pandemic’s early spread.”
“Piecing together clues, Bloom established that the NIH itself had deleted the sequences from its own archive at the request of researchers in Wuhan. Now, he was hoping Fauci and his boss, NIH director Francis Collins, could help him identify other deleted sequences that might shed light on the mystery,” the magazine wrote.
In the House hearing, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) asked Tabek why U.S. health officials would comply with China’s request to hide the genomic sequences.
“There’s no question that the communication that we had about the sequence archive — Sequence Read Archive — could have been improved. I freely admit that,” Tabek said. “If I may, the archive never deleted the sequence, it just did not make it available for interrogation.”
But he added that researchers can still get to the original sequences if they so desire.
It’s not the first scandal about the Wuhan lab. Documents published in September by The Intercept revealed that U.S. health officials indirectly funded so-called “gain of function” research at the Wuhan lab — including the modification of three bat coronaviruses distinct from COVID-19 and the discovery that they became much more infectious among “humanized” mice when human-type receptors were added to them. U.S. officials have denied the funding went to “gain of function” research.
Joseph Curl has covered politics for 35 years, including 12 years as White House correspondent for a national newspaper. He was also the a.m. editor of the Drudge Report for four years. Send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @josephcurl.