Details of the genetic makeup of some of the earliest samples of coronavirus in China were removed from an American database where they were initially stored at the request of Chinese researchers, U.S. officials confirmed, adding to concerns over secrecy surrounding the outbreak and its origins.
The data, first submitted to the U.S.-based Sequence Read Archive in March 2020, were "requested to be withdrawn" by the same researcher three months later in June, the U.S. National Institutes of Health said in a statement Wednesday. The genetic sequences came from the Chinese city of Wuhan where the COVID-19 outbreak was initially concentrated.
The reason cited at the time for withdrawal was the sequence information had been updated and was being submitted to another database, the agency said. The researcher asked the data be removed "to avoid version control issues," it said.
"Submitting investigators hold the rights to their data and can request withdrawal of the data," the agency said. "NIH can't speculate on motive beyond the investigator's stated intentions."
The disappearance of the genetic sequences from the database raises questions about what else from the Wuhan outbreak has been shielded, said American virologist Jesse Bloom, who publicized his discovery they were missing earlier this week. Bloom, who subsequently recovered the information, said it did not provide definitive details on where or how the virus originated.
Politicians and scientists from around the world have grown increasingly frustrated by China's efforts to deflect an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, especially the possibility it leaked from a Wuhan laboratory. Though a World Health Organization expert team visited China earlier this year for an investigation, they were not allowed access to raw data and their conclusion – the virus likely crossed over from animals – has been criticized as being premature.
President Joe Biden has ordered American intelligence agencies to probe the issue again, while China has strenuously denied the Wuhan laboratory had any link to the outbreak.
"I don't think we can say very much with high confidence," said Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, referring to the virus' origins. He added his findings "reminds us of how little we know."
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