In what must come as a shock to almost nobody, Lawrence Tabak, the acting director of the National Institutes of Health, confirmed that health officials in the United States had indeed complied with requests by Chinese scientists to hide preliminary genomic sequences of COVID-19 early in the pandemic.
Tabak admitted during questioning at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday that the NIH had “withdrawn” the genomic data from public view, though it was still archived and remains on file, as reported by the New York Post. The admission, it should be noted, was couched amidst a great deal of impenetrable bureaucratese, and it took much prodding by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) to unearth the truth of the matter.
“Overall, the NIH has done some great things,” Herrera Beutler remarked, before beginning her questioning. “I’m a big supporter, I think most of us have been big supporters in terms of increasing your funding, because we believe in what you’re doing. But it has been a little challenging in the last couple of years, when there were times when I do think the image has been called into question—not, I’m not talking about crackpots, I’m talking about average Americans who maybe don’t get to see up close and personal what’s happening, they get conflicting information.”
Fascinating exchange at the House this morning with NIH Acting Director Lawrence Tabak about the deletion of early COVID sequences at the behest of Chinese scientists.
NIH archives data hidden from public view on a tape drive.@jbloom_lab pic.twitter.com/4UrPm3btL7
— Emily Kopp (@emilyakopp) May 11, 2022
She then went on to ask Tabak about reports that early genomic data from COVID had been deleted, and that there were rational concerns on the part of the public that the hostile Chinese Communist Party may have been behind this. Vanity Fair, for instance, recently published a story about the activities of the “virus-hunting nonprofit” EcoHealth Alliance, and reported that this vital data—coming at a crucial moment early on in the pandemic, when it may have resolved questions as to whether the virus was zoonotic or had in fact leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology—had been hidden at the request of Chinese scientists.
“There’s no question that the communication that we had about the sequence archive—the Sequence Read Archive—could have been improved,” Tabak responded. “I freely admit that. If I may, the archive never deleted the sequence—it just did not make it available for interrogation.”
Herrera Beutler then asked if the NIH still has the information.
“We have the information,” Tabak answered.
“So it wasn’t…the way it was reported is it was pulled out, the early genomic sequencing was removed by a Chinese researcher,” Herrera Beutler said.
“So anybody who submits to the Sequence Read Archive is allowed to ask for it to be removed,” Tabak explained, “and that investigator did do that. But we never erase it.”
Tabak insisted that the NIH never erases the information—but it was certainly withdrawn from easy public access and removed to archaic “tape drives.” Researchers who knew about the data, and wanted access to it, would have to apply to the NIH to get the information.
“In the way that it was originally eliminated from public view,” Tabak clarified, “it was ‘withdrawn,’ and that’s the most difficult for people to access. The error that was made, and we found this out after a review of all of our processes, was it should have been suppressed. The distinction being that if it’s withdrawn, it is kept archivally on a tape drive…old technology, but that’s how it’s done. But when it is withdrawn, it can still be accessed by accession number, and so researchers are able to access that information.”
“So the information is still there?” Herrera Beutler asked.
“That’s correct,” Tabak replied, “the information was never lost.”
So the plot, as they say, thickens.
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