A Chinese scientist sought to publish the genetic profile of the coronavirus two weeks before Beijing formally released the sequence, as per federal documents shared with a US congressional committee and released on Wednesday, The Washington Post reported.
The delay may have slowed researchers’ work on tests, treatments, and vaccines to combat the virus.
As per The Washington Post, the report raises new questions about how Chinese officials and scientists shared information in the earliest days of the pandemic as the virus quickly spread through their country, although experts cautioned that it does not offer substantive insight into the pandemic’s origins.
On December 28, 2019, a virologist at the Institute of Pathogen Biology of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, submitted a genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to GenBank, a publicly accessible database of genetic sequences overseen by the US National Institutes of Health.
GenBank’s review process flagged the submission three days later, alerting Ren in an email that her submission was incomplete and requesting that she provide additional annotations. Ren’s submission was deleted from GenBank’s processing queue on January 16, 2020, after Ren did not resubmit the information with the requested annotations.
A separate team of Chinese researchers submitted a “nearly identical” genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 to GenBank that was published on January 12, 2020. That was according to a letter that Melanie Anne Egorin, a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services, sent to House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders and that was made public Wednesday.
Ren did not immediately respond to an email Wednesday requesting comment. Her submission and emailed replies from GenBank were released by congressional Republicans who have been investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to public health experts who reviewed the documents, the episode illustrated a missed opportunity to learn more about the virus at the beginning of the global health emergency.
The failure to publish the genetic sequence submitted by Ren is “retroactively painful,” said Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. Bloom noted that researchers were depending on genetic sequences to begin developing medical interventions to combat the coronavirus and argued that earlier access to the information would have expedited new tests and vaccines.
“That two weeks would have made a tangible difference in quite a few people’s lives,” Bloom said, as per The Washington Post.
The genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 that Ren tried to publish in December 2019 — days before Bloom and other experts said they started closely tracking the outbreak of a novel respiratory virus in China — was never publicly accessible for the researchers and laboratory staff who browse GenBank, which federal officials said contains more than 3.8 billion published records.
The Wall Street Journal first reported on Ren’s submission to GenBank.
In a statement, House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), health subcommittee chair Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) and oversight subcommittee chair Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) said the finding raises further questions about whether Chinese officials have been forthcoming about the virus.
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