NIH: Yes, a Chinese scientist asked us to delete his data from early Wuhan COVID samples -- and we did

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

A follow-up to yesterday’s post about Dr. Jesse Bloom and the curious case of the disappearing genome sequences from viral samples of SARS-CoV-2 harvested from patients in Wuhan early in the pandemic. Bloom went looking for that data in NIH’s database hoping that the genomes from those samples might offer a clue about the virus’s origins. But when he tried to download it he found that it wasn’t there anymore. It was gone, without an explanation.

So he went sniffing around online to see if he could find an archived version of it somewhere — and did. From the 34 partial sequences he recovered, he discovered that the samples of the virus linked to the Huanan Seafood Market don’t resemble bat viruses quite as closely as certain samples unconnected to the market do, raising the question of whether the virus really did jump from a bat (or an intermediate host) to a human at the market or someplace else.

In his paper describing his findings Bloom was openly suspicious of why the data was deleted from NIH’s database after it was submitted, claiming that there was “no plausible scientific reason” to hide the ball. So he contacted NIH and asked them. Did they delete the data on their own initiative or did the Chinese researcher who submitted it request deletion after the fact? NIH gave him an answer but Bloom was coy about revealing it:

Today the Wall Street Journal revealed the truth. No wonder Bloom was suspicious: It was indeed the researcher who supplied the data who later sought to have it removed for reasons that remain unclear.

“Submitting investigators hold the rights to their data and can request withdrawal of the data,” the NIH said in a statement…

“It makes us wonder if there are other sequences like these that have been purged,” said Vaughn S. Cooper, a University of Pittsburgh evolutionary biologist who wasn’t involved in the new paper and said he hasn’t studied the deleted sequences himself…

According to the NIH statement, the scientist who submitted the sequences requested in June 2020 that they be deleted because they had been updated and were to be posted to another, unspecified database. The investigator said they wanted the older version to be removed to avoid confusion, according to the NIH.

That certainly was thoughtful of the Chinese scientist. Say, where’s the new database with the complete genomic sequences of early Wuhan samples? Can American virologists have a look at it?

The fact that the data was quietly withdrawn “suggests possibly one reason why we haven’t seen more of these sequences is perhaps there hasn’t been a wholehearted effort to get them out there,” Bloom told the Journal. The question is why that effort hasn’t been wholehearted. I’m open to the possibility that suppressing information is muscle memory for the Chinese government even when that information isn’t necessarily incriminating. Maybe they suspect a zoonotic origin for the virus but scrambled anyway to delete data from early in the crisis because, well, that’s just what they do during a crisis. They cover up.

But I’m also open to the possibility that China has reason to suspect a lab leak and fears that genomic detectives might find clues in the sequences from early samples pointing in that direction. A lot of other Americans are open to that possibility as well, it seems:

Out of 41 different demographic groups tested (gender, race, age, income, region, etc), only five had less than a majority in favor of the lab-leak theory and they all overlapped considerably: Democrats, Democratic men, Democratic women, liberals, and Biden voters. The split among Dems generally is nearly even (41/46) and among Dem men a plurality favors the lab-leak explanation (46/42). Note also that the question posed by Fox for its poll was the strongest form of the lab-leak theory, that Chinese scientists created the virus and then it leaked from the lab. (The weaker form is that they harvested it from a bat in the wild and brought it back to the lab, where it leaked.) Unless and until China finds an animal host pointing to a zoonotic origin for the virus, it seems the bulk of Americans are going to suspect foul play and an ensuing cover-up. And even then, finding an animal with the virus in it at this stage would likely be dismissed by most as ChiCom chicanery in which they deliberately infected an animal with the virus somehow simply to throw investigators off the scent of the lab leak.

As for NIH, I can’t fathom a policy in which scientists are allowed to “disappear” data that’s already been submitted to the agency. Erasing material that’s already been published is considered unethical on a *blog*; when new information comes to light that leaves you unable to stand behind something you’ve previously posted, you don’t delete it, you leave it up with an update explaining why you’ve lost confidence in what you wrote. At the federal government’s top public health agency, though, it seems they follow a “memory hole” policy. In the unlikely event that the Chinese researcher who submitted the early Wuhan data was telling the truth about updated genomic sequences being posted to a new database, the original data should have been left up with a note indicating that it was outdated and directing users to that database. Allowing scientists, especially scientists from totalitarian countries, to remove information after the fact is all but inviting them to make NIH complicit in their cover-ups.

I’ll leave you with this sneak preview of forthcoming CCP propaganda. The heroic climax presumably will be a Chinese scientist successfully deleting the genetic data proving the lab-leak theory from NIH’s servers.