A trio of Republican senators are demanding answers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over the deletion of genetic data — which could offer clues into the origins of the novel Wuhan coronavirus — at the behest of Chinese researchers.
In June, Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, and Roger Marshall of Kansas wrote an initial letter to NIH Director Francis Collins with questions about missing data from the agency-run database used by scientists across the globe.
“On September 8, 2021, your office provided a response that failed to fully and completely answer all seven questions and failed to provide the requested records,” the senators wrote in a foll0w-up letter Thursday. The trio of lawmakers made additional inquiries in a new letter with a deadline set for the end of the month.
The saga began when a virologist named Jesse Bloom at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle discovered that genetic sequences were missing from the NIH-operated database scientists routinely use to investigate the origin and evolution of viruses. As pathogens mutate and spread from person to person, the database is instrumental in tracking such mutations, which may also provide clues into their origin. In August, a report from U.S. intelligence agencies probing the origins of the novel Wuhan coronavirus turned up inconclusive.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the sequences which disappeared from the NIH’s Sequence Read Archive (SRA) were removed at the request of a Wuhan University researcher who had submitted them. Two weeks after Bloom’s findings this past summer, the sequences were reportedly re-uploaded onto a public Chinese database.
“It is unusual for data submitted to the Sequence Read Archive to be deleted later on,” the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. “The NIH said it retains withdrawn data for the scientific record and in case of disaster recovery.”
Now Republican senators are demanding names of those involved, whose identities are concealed over privacy concerns, along with the results of an independent review conducted within the agency over the issue.
“With more than 650,000 American lives lost and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent to support the American people, businesses and the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, the public deserves to know what their government knows about the origins of this global illness and the research data that it possesses,” read a Grassley press release.
Meanwhile, the NIH itself has remained a culprit suspect in the development of the novel coronavirus which saw its first outbreak in China’s Hubei Province. From 2014 to 2019, the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) directed by Dr. Anthony Fauci awarded an annual grant of roughly $600,000 to study bat coronaviruses which could infect humans.
Though disputed by Fauci (who would have an interest in concealing his own potential role in the global pandemic), the form of research funded, known as “gain of function,” was banned from U.S. funding from 2014 to 2017, the first three years of the grant. The financial award funneled through the New York-based non-profit, EcoHealth Alliance, appeared to circumvent the Health and Human Services (HHS) special review board established to study such proposals before giving final approval.