Bipartisan lawmakers press NIH for info on deleted coronavirus data

Bipartisan lawmakers press NIH for info on deleted coronavirus data
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A bipartisan pair of lawmakers want information from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) about the deletion of data on the genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that could provide answers as to the virus's origin.

In a letter sent Friday and shared first with The Hill, Reps. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiOvernight Health Care — FDA panel backs boosters for some, but not all White House to host global COVID-19 summit next week Biden under pressure to ratchet up vaccine aid MORE (D-Ill.) and Mark GreenMark GreenA quick reaction force in India could prevent the worst of Taliban rule in Afghanistan Overnight Defense: Troops head back to Afghanistan to aid diplomatic evacuation Vaccine mandate poses major test for Pentagon chief MORE (R-Tenn.) ask for answers about the missing genetic sequences, and press NIH Director Francis Collins to ensure there are safeguards in place to protect scientific data.

The letter comes after a scientist last month said he found some of the genetic sequences of the virus that had previously been uploaded to an NIH server in March 2020 were subsequently deleted at the request of the Chinese researchers from Wuhan who initially uploaded them.

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Jesse Bloom, a principal researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, wrote in a preprint paper that he recovered 13 missing sequences that purportedly show the virus was circulating in the Chinese city of Wuhan before a December outbreak of COVID-19 that was linked to a "wet market" selling live animals.

"Given that the true origin of SARS-CoV-2 remains a mystery, the NIH must fully account for the decision to delete information that could bring the world closer to a conclusion," Green and Krishnamoorthi wrote.

The NIH said the requestor wanted the data removed from the agency's Sequence Read Archive and indicated it was being submitted to another database. Submitting investigators hold the rights to their data and can request withdrawal of the data, the agency said.

The NIH also said staff "can’t speculate on motive beyond a submitter’s stated intentions."

But the lawmakers want to know whether the NIH is conducting a review of the approval, whether the agency has ways to ensure that data removed in the future is preserved, and if the agency can rule out any nefarious intent on the part of the Chinese government.

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"The comprehensive, scientific understanding of SARS-CoV-2 will allow us to properly respond to this current pandemic and prevent future pandemics," the lawmakers wrote. 

Top U.S. public health officials and experts are increasingly lending credibility to the need for a deeper investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

Scientists haven’t discovered definitive proof the virus leaked from a lab. But they also have not found hard evidence that shows the virus started in animals before naturally infecting humans, which is why some now argue an investigation is needed.

President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE has ordered the U.S. intelligence community to try to find the virus's origins, and a report is expected by August. 

But efforts in Congress have largely been partisan affairs, with Republicans demanding information from the administration, and accusing the NIH and White House chief medical adviser Anthony FauciAnthony FauciSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Journalist Zaid Jilani describes removal of animal rights ad that criticizes Fauci Watch live: White House COVID-19 response team holds briefing MORE of covering up the U.S.'s role in helping to fund the creation of a deliberately-engineered Chinese bioweapon.

Friday's letter from members of the House select coronavirus subcommittee represents a rare bipartisan effort.