NIH Concedes It ‘Suppressed’ Wuhan Lab Genetic Data, But Disputes Watchdog’s ‘Deleted’ Label

NIH Concedes It ‘Suppressed’ Wuhan Lab Genetic Data, But Disputes Watchdog’s ‘Deleted’ Label
Then-NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins holds up a model of the coronavirus as he testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee looking into the budget estimates for National Institute of Health (NIH) and the state of medical research, on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 26, 2021. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP)
Mark Tapscott
A National Institutes of Health (NIH) spokesperson is disputing a nonprofit watchdog group’s claim that the agency “deleted” genetic sequencing data on the CCP virus from a Chinese lab, although the same official acknowledged the data was “suppressed.”

“The headline says the sequences were deleted, which is inaccurate. They were not deleted. This is a really important point, and I’ve highlighted what did happen from what we provided to you earlier this week,” NIH Media Branch Chief Amanda Fine told The Epoch Times in a March 31 email.

Fine was referring to a March 29 Epoch Times story, headlined “NIH Deleted Info Received From Wuhan Lab on CCP Virus Genetic Sequencing, Watchdog’s FOIA Finds.” The information that Fine referenced as having been provided to The Epoch Times by NIH earlier in the week was included in the published story.

“In June 2020, in response to a request by the same researcher, NCBI gave the sequence data the status of ‘withdrawn,’ which removes sequencing data from all public means of access but does not delete them,” the spokesperson said at the time.

“NCBI subsequently reassigned the status of the sequence data to ‘suppressed,’ which means that sequence data are removed from the search process but can be directly found by accession number. This action to reassign the data was identified as part of NLM’s ongoing review into the matter. We are working to make more information available.”

The biotechnology center, which is part of the institute’s National Library of Medicine (NLM), is the U.S. component of the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration.

The Epoch Times story was prompted by a report published on March 29 by Empower Oversight Whistleblowers and Research (EO), which was based on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) responses the group received from the NIH.
“On June 5, 2020, a Wuhan University researcher requested that NIH retract the researcher’s submission of BioProject ID PRJNA637497 because of error. The Wuhan researcher explained ‘I’m sorry for my wrong submitting,'” EO said in a statement (pdf) on March 29.

“BioProject ID PRJNA637497 is also referred to as Submission-ID SUB7554642. Three days later, on June 8th, the NIH declined the researcher’s request, advising that it prefers to edit or replace, as opposed to delete, sequences submitted to the SRA.”

SRA refers to the Sequence Read Archive, a data resource made available by NCBI that stores raw sequencing data.

On June 16, 2020, NIH officials reversed themselves and deleted the genetic sequencing data, as requested by the Wuhan researcher. That researcher was quoted by EO as explaining to NIH: “Recently, I found that it’s hard to visit my submitted SRA data, and it would also be very difficult for me to update the data. I have submitted an updated version of this SRA data to another website, so I want to withdraw the old one at NCBI in order to avoid the data version issue.”

After some discussion about what would be deleted, the NIH concluded the discussion by reassuring the Wuhan researcher that it “had withdrawn everything.”

Asked for a response to Fine’s claim the information wasn’t deleted, EO founder and President Jason Foster told The Epoch Times that NIH’s actions ensure that the CCP virus genetic sequencing info is only available to the few individuals possessing its “accession number,” which effectively deletes the data from open access and research.

“NIH documents released with Empower Oversight’s report demonstrate that the sequencing data was deleted from public view by the NIH at the request of the Wuhan researcher,” he said.

“Our report also details emails between professor Jesse Bloom and the NIH’s Steve Sherry from October 2021 that clearly indicate NIH retained copies ‘for archival purposes.’ Yet the emails demonstrate that NIH refused to share that data in an open, transparent scientific process sought by professor Bloom.

“The NIH should make more information available about each and every time it reassigned the status of sequence data and any information potentially relevant to the origins of COVID-19 should be made available for scientific inquiry.”

Fine didn’t respond when asked by The Epoch Times about who “has access to all of the genetic sequencing information provided by the Wuhan researcher and which was requested by that researcher to be removed.”

The Epoch Times also asked that because “NIH must know who in fact has accessed the data ... who did so and when since the Wuhan researcher requested the information’s removal?”

Mark Tapscott is an award-winning investigative editor and reporter who covers Congress, national politics, and policy for The Epoch Times. Mark was admitted to the National Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Hall of Fame in 2006 and he was named Journalist of the Year by CPAC in 2008. He was a consulting editor on the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Other Than Honorable” in 2014.
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