Those Virus Sequences That Were Suddenly Deleted? They’re Back
A batch of the first data on coronaviruses that have been missing for a year has come out of hiding.
In June, an American scientist discovered that more than 200 genetic sequences of samples from Covid-19 patients isolated in China at the start of the pandemic had been curiously deleted from an online database. With a few digital sleuths, Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, managed to locate 13 of the sequences on Google Cloud.
When Dr Bloom shared his experience in a report published online, he wrote that it “seems likely that the footage has been removed to disguise its existence.”
But now, a strange explanation has emerged, resulting from an editorial oversight from a scientific journal. And the footage was uploaded to another database, overseen by the Chinese government.
The story began in early 2020, when researchers at Wuhan University studied a new way to test for the deadly coronavirus sweeping the country. They sequenced a short portion of genetic material from virus samples taken from 34 patients at a hospital in Wuhan.
The researchers published their results online in March 2020. That month, they also uploaded the sequences to an online database called the Sequence Read Archive, which is maintained by the National Institutes of Health, and submitted an article describing their results to a scientific journal called Petit. The document was released in June 2020.
Dr Bloom became aware of the footage from Wuhan this spring as he researched the origin of Covid-19. While reading a May 2020 review on the first genetic sequences of coronaviruses, he came across a spreadsheet that noted their presence in the Sequence Read Archive.
But Dr Bloom couldn’t find them in the database. He emailed Chinese scientists on June 6 asking where the data was, but got no response. On June 22, he released his report, which was covered by The New York Times and other media.
At the time, an NIH spokeswoman said the study’s authors requested in June 2020 that the sequences be removed from the database. The authors informed the agency that the footage was being updated and would be added to a different database. (The authors did not respond to Times inquiries.)
But a year later, Dr Bloom could not find the sequences in any database.
On July 5, more than a year after researchers removed the footage from the sequence playback archive and two weeks after Dr. Bloom’s report was posted online, the footage was quietly uploaded to a database maintained by the Chinese National Center for Bioinformation by Ben Hu, researcher at Wuhan University and co-author of the Small paper.
On July 21, the disappearance of the footage was raised at a press conference in Beijing, where Chinese officials dismissed claims the pandemic started as a lab leak.
According to a translation of the press conference by a reporter from the state-controlled Xinhua News Agency, Deputy Minister of the National Health Commission of China, Dr Zeng Yixin, said the problem occurred. when Small’s editors deleted a paragraph in which scientists describe sequences in the sequence playback archive.
“As a result, the researchers felt that it was no longer necessary to store the data in the NCBI database,” said Dr Zeng, referring to the Sequence Read Archive, maintained by the NIH.
An editor of Small, specializing in micro and nanoscale science and based in Germany, confirmed his account. “The data availability statement was deleted by mistake,” editor-in-chief Plamena Dogandzhiyski wrote in an email. “We will be posting a fix very soon, which will clarify the error and include a link to the repository where the data is now hosted.”
The newspaper published a formal correction to this effect on Thursday.
It is not known why the authors did not mention the journal error when they requested that the footage be removed from the Sequence Playback Archives, or why they told the NIH that the footage was being updated. day. It’s also unclear why they waited a year to upload them to another database. Dr Hu did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Dr Bloom was also unable to provide an explanation for the conflicting accounts. “I am not in a position to decide among them,” he said in an interview.
On their own, these footage cannot resolve open questions about the origin of the pandemic, whether through contact with a wild animal, a leak from a lab, or some other route.
In their first reports, the Wuhan researchers wrote that they had extracted genetic material from “samples of ambulatory patients suspected of Covid-19 at the start of the epidemic”. But entries in the Chinese database now indicate that they were taken from Wuhan University’s Renmin Hospital on January 30 – nearly two months after the first reports of Covid-19 in China.
While the disappearance of the footage appears to be the result of an editorial error, Dr Bloom felt it was still worth looking for other coronavirus sequences that may be lurking online. “It certainly means that we have to keep looking,” he said.
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