Doubts about China’s transparency on the COVID-19 pandemic origins piling up: Report

Washington: Jesse Bloom, a virologist and professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, discovered the deletion of some early sequences of coronavirus from Wuhan which were missing from the Sequence Read Archive, a public archive of high throughput sequencing data, and noted that it seems likely that sequences were deleted by Chinese researchers “to obscure their existence.”

An opinion piece in the Washington Post ‘Doubts about China’s transparency on the pandemic origins are piling up’ says that Dr Bloom’s discovery just adds to the pile of questions about whether China is hiding something.

“It is time to launch a serious, sustained investigation,” it says.

The article notes that to get closer to the spark that caused the pandemic, it is essential to find the earliest cases of people who became infected.

Zoonotic spillover or inadvertent accident?

“Evidence from these patients could suggest whether the virus jumped from an animal host to a human, in a zoonotic spillover, or whether the infection came from an inadvertent accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was actively studying bat coronaviruses and their potential to infect people. So far, the earliest cases have not been found,” it says.

The article says that when a joint mission of the World Health Organization and China made its initial attempt to look into the origins of the pandemic, a working group focused on “unlocking the potential” of global genomic sequence databases. The scientists hoped they might find genetic blueprints that would hold clues about the evolution of the virus and its pathway to people. In its March 30 report, the joint mission listed the key global databases, including the Sequence Read Archive managed by the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. The archive says it is “the largest publicly available repository of high throughput sequencing data.”

“But some early sequences from Wuhan were missing from the archive. They had been deposited in March 2020 by researchers in China who were looking at diagnostic testing methods. In June 2020 the researchers wrote to the NIH and asked that the sequences be deleted. The China researchers gave a technical reason, saying that the data was being updated, they wanted to deposit it elsewhere and wanted to avoid confusion. The NIH says it complied.”

The Washington Post article notes says that Jesse Bloom discovered the deletion and on June 18 published a preprint article revealing it.

“The Chinese researchers didn’t completely hide the data — they included some in an article published last year in an obscure journal — but the deletion meant that anyone looking for these early Wuhan cases would not find them in the most likely place, the Sequence Read Archive,” it says.

The article quotes Dr Bloom as saying that he managed to discover 13 deleted sequences on Google Cloud, and partially reconstructed them. “While they don’t settle the virus origins, they appear to confirm previous findings that the virus had several lineages in Wuhan, not only the one at the Wuhan seafood market,” it says.

Dr Bloom says it “seems likely the sequences were deleted to obscure their existence.”

When he asked the researchers why they did it, they didn’t answer.

“We already know of China’s attempt to cover up the early outbreak, punish Wuhan doctors who were alarmed about it, and withhold information from the population about the human transmissibility of the virus,” the article says.

Gag orders on medical workers

“China took offline a major database at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and imposed gag orders on medical workers and others. It has steadfastly denied that any kind of laboratory accident contributed to the pandemic and repeatedly suggested that the origins are outside its borders,” it adds.

The article says Dr Bloom’s discovery just adds to the pile of questions about whether China is hiding something. “It is time to launch a serious, sustained investigation,” it says.