In outbreak response, speed is critical as authorities seek to quickly determine the cause of a disease and prevent it from spreading. A new report is now raising fresh questions about China’s early response to COVID-19. The Wall Street Journal revealed Wednesday that a researcher in Beijing attempted to upload the genetic sequence SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, to a US-based public database about two weeks before the Chinese government publicized the pathogen’s sequence, a lag that potentially robbed scientists and health officials of valuable time.
On December 28, 2019, days before the Chinese government even alerted the World Health Organization to a mysterious cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, Lili Ren, a researcher with the Institute of Pathogen Biology in Beijing, tried to upload the COVID virus’s sequence to GenBank, a public database maintained by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). She never responded to technical questions from the database administrators, which ultimately prevented the full publication of her data. US House of Representatives investigators turned up the new data after seeking records from NIH about the pandemic’s early days.
When the SARS-COV-2 sequence was finally published in Jan. 10, scientific efforts to develop countermeasures quickly kicked into high gear. According to the new information from House investigators, that happened two weeks after Ren’s abortive attempt—although one Chinese scientist has said previously that the US government knew the virus sequence on Jan. 5. With the sequence in hand, scientists were able to design an mRNA vaccine against COVID within days. After months of clinical trials, the US vaccination campaign began in mid-December 2020.
While the COVID response represented a record for vaccine development, a process that usually takes years, the Journal report raises the question of whether some public health efforts could have begun up to two weeks sooner. With COVID killing thousands of people a day in the United States alone in the early days of the campaign, a delay of weeks might have been significant.
The GenBank database submission shows that Chinese scientists knew at least by Dec. 28 that the pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan was being caused by a new coronavirus, Jesse Bloom, an expert in viral evolution at the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center, told the Journal.
It “underscores how cautious we have to be about the accuracy of the information that the Chinese government has released,” Bloom told the newspaper. “It’s important to keep in mind how little we know.”
Melanie Anne Egorin, the assistant secretary for legislation at the Health and Human Services Department, told House investigators last month that NIH staff, after notifying Ren of errors in her submission, never received an updated re-submission. The GenBank system then sent an automated email to Ren notifying her that her submission had been deleted from the processing queue. Egorin told Congress that a virus sequence from another submitter was “received and published” on Jan. 12, 2020, according to a letter released by House Republicans. House investigators faulted NIH’s processes as insufficient as the agency “apparently had no idea” that it had an early COVID sequence.
The date of the first SARS-CoV-2 sequence publication is a matter of some dispute. While many credit Yong-zhen Zhang, a researcher at Fudan University in Shanghai, and his colleagues for posting the sequence first on Virological, a virology blog, on the evening of Jan. 10, 2020 in the United States, the pathogen sequence database GISAID claims it was actually the first to publish the sequence on the evening of January 9, US time. GISAID claims it published two sequences attributed to the Chinese Center for Disease Control that day. A 2023 Science investigation could not find corroborating evidence for GISAID’s assertion, however, and cited scientists and public records as suggesting that the Zhang team was the first to publish a sequence.
But Zhang has also alleged that the US government knew about the sequences before the Virological post. He told Time magazine in 2020 that he submitted the sequence to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), the division of NIH which runs GenBank, on Jan. 5. “When we posted the genome on Jan. 5, the United States certainly knew about this virus,” he told the magazine. The Health and Human Services Department has not yet responded to a request for clarification on the timing of Zhang’s submission and whether the US government could have moved faster to publicize the sequence data. The Science investigation also supported Zhang’s assertion that he submitted the data on Jan. 5, saying that he did so without making it immediately public.
Republicans in the House have been leading multiple investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically analyzing whether the virus spilled over from animals in a Wuhan wildlife market or emerged after an accident at a research laboratory. While news of Ren’s submission does not settle this question, it is sure to energize critics of China’s transparency. “This significant discovery further underscores why we cannot trust any of the so-called ‘facts’ or data provided by the [Chinese Communist Party],” House Republicans said in a statement.
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