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NIH deleted COVID info from public view at Wuhan researcher's request, emails show

Deletion raised concerns in science circles but NIH directed reporters to more favorable coverage of the agency.

Published: March 28, 2022 7:09pm

Updated: April 2, 2022 10:48am

The National Institutes of Health deleted information from public view about COVID-19 genetic sequencing during the pandemic at the request of researchers in Wuhan, China, a move that created consternation in science circles, according to emails obtained by a nonpartisan whistleblower and government oversight group. 

The emails obtained by the Empower Oversight group show a Wuhan University researcher submitted virus sequence information to the NIH's Sequence Read Archive in March 2020 – the same month the World Health Organization declared a pandemic and about two months after the virus was detected in Wuhan.

The scientist made an additional submission on the virus in June 2020, according to the emails. Later that day, he asked the NIH to retract the submission, claiming it was made in error.

The NIH responded by saying it preferred to edit or replace submissions over replacing them. 

A few days later, the researcher submitted another request to withdraw the genetic sequence from the NIH database, according to the emails.

The NIH agreed to the researcher's request one day later, and asked for clarification on whether another submission should be deleted.

"I had withdrawn everything," an unnamed NIH official said to the Wuhan researcher in an email.

NIH acknowledges the data was withdrawn from public view but says it has archival copies.

The emails were obtained after Empower Oversight sued the NIH under the Freedom of Information Act. You can read them here.

The documents also show an expert advised then-NIH Director Francis Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who leads the agency's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that COVID originated outside of the Wuhan food market, as the Chinese government has claimed.

Additional emails show that the NIH directed reporters to more favorable coverage about the deletion.

"Off the record: we think this WaPo story does a good job characterizing the situation," NIH's Renate Myles wrote to a reporter at The Hill newspaper, directing the journalist away from a New York Times story because of its "tone."

"These documents raise several questions that need further investigation to answer fully," according to a report by Empower Oversight, founder by a former top staffer for Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley. "Congress should press the NIH for answers on why it is stonewalling Senate inquiries and dragging its feet on basic transparency through FOIA."

The group says one of the most disconcerting elements of the emails is evidence showing the NIH has refused to participate in a transparent process to examine data on the deleted sequences.

"Most importantly, why has NIH refused to examine archival copies of deleted sequences in an open scientific process to determine whether any of that information might be able to shed light on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic?" the group asked. 

However, that argument was dismissed by NIH official Steve Sherry.

Although sequences are never fully deleted, according to the agency, Sherry told a researcher who asked for transparency, "As you know, when data sets are withdrawn from the database, that status does not permit use for further analyses." 

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