The Chinese researchers’ deletion request may or may not have been legitimate, but the need now is to preserve all relevant data—even data that may not be as robust as desired, if only to let such data get examined and junked in the quest for nailing the origin of the pandemic.
Last week, mainline media in the US reported that Chinese researchers requested deletion of SARS CoV-2 genetic sequence data submitted by them to a database maintained by an affiliate of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), following which the data was removed. This came to light after Jesse Bloom, a researcher with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, claimed in an unreviewed scientific paper that he had dug up the missing data and that the data could likely support the contention of many (scientists and commoners alike) that the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t originate in the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. Bloom’s critics, on the other hand, assert that the recovered sequences add little to what is already known about the virus and the claim that the Chinese researchers requested removal of the data to “obscure its existence” is absurd since the data was published by them in a different platform.
While Bloom says that he has no bias towards either origin-assumption—that the pandemic was a case of zoonosis, or was a case of the virus leaking out of one of China’s top research labs, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)—he claims that the data he has recovered should show that the virus was circulating in the population in Wuhan much before what China claims. Bear in mind, Bloom—Science reports—helped organise a public letter from scientists criticising the WHO origin probe’s inferences.
The origin of the pandemic was always controversial, and intensely politicised. However, there seems to be growing consensus across the developed world over investigating this, with the Biden administration ordering an intelligence probe—vis-a-vis origin-probe being seen hitherto as largely a Republican demand—and WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus voicing scepticism over the findings of the WHO-China origin-probe earlier this year.
Indeed, US experts have warned that establishing origin is key, and, failing this, the world won’t have the necessary knowledge to stall similar pandemics in the future. India too has joined the call for a transparent and rigorous origin probe, even as an Indian scientist-couple joined independent efforts to do this. Bloom’s exercise shows that data archived outside China can still be key to probing Covid-19 origin, even though the implications of these may not always be clear or even be hotly contested.
The Chinese researchers’ deletion request may or may not have been legitimate, but the need now is to preserve all relevant data—even data that may not be as robust as desired, if only to let such data get examined and junked in the quest for nailing the origin of the pandemic. To that end, the NIH and other custodians of Covid-19 research will need to protect all submissions and collated data even as their veracity is examined later. China, for its part, must realise that forensic searches will keep revealing more about the pandemic—even as data is erased (like the database of viruses collected by WI/V), whether innocently or with vested interests.