The National Institutes of Health (NIH) deleted COVID-19 gene sequences that may have proven valuable to detecting earlier the probability the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated at the Wuhan lab, as was discovered in June 2021.
Now, U.S. district court judge Leonie Brinkema is ordering the NIH to turn over the missing data related to a probe by the group Empower Oversight. The NIH had earlier submitted a motion for summary judgment, which was denied.
“In Empower Oversight’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the Eastern District of Virginia, Empower Oversight has filed its opposition to NIH’s motion for summary judgment. In its motion, the NIH sought to evade accountability for violations of its legal obligations to disclose documents under FOIA,” the group stated in July. “According to Empower Oversight’s filing, NIH improperly withheld information gathered in response to questions from Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.). Last year, the Senators asked about the agency’s decision to delete coronavirus genetic sequence information from an NIH database at the request of Chinese researchers. NIH has already admitted in the lawsuit that it failed to meet deadlines required by FOIA in responding to Empower Oversight’s request.”
“The NIH has flouted deadlines and ignored its legal obligations to be transparent with Congress and the public,” said Jason Foster, Founder and President of Empower Oversight. “The agency gathered answers to the Senators’ specific factual question but did not transmit them, and then it blacked-out entire paragraphs rather than disclose the information pursuant to our FOIA request,.”
“Under FOIA, the deliberations of agency officials are exempt from the normal disclosure requirements, but facts are not exempt,” Empower Oversight notes and provided essentia background.
“Empower Oversight filed its initial FOIA request on July 14, 2021,” the group states. “Although NIH admitted receiving the request, it failed respond in any way for four months. Thus, Empower Oversight sued the agency in November 2021 to compel disclosure of the requested documents. Since then, Empower Oversight filed an amended complaint on March 1, 2022 challenging the improper redactions of information in answers drafted but never transmitted to the Senate. Empower Oversight also released a research paper describing what has been learned from the documents NIH was forced to reveal so far as a result of Empower Oversight’s lawsuit.”
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As investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson notes on the case: “The judge has also left in place, for now, a magistrate’s order that, oddly, sealed information that had already been made public: namely the name of a Chinese researcher. NIH had previously disclosed that information in other litigation, and it was referenced in an article cited in the NIH’s own filings. Empower Oversight has argued the judge’s order is erroneous since the information is already available.” Attkisson points out that the judge has orderered the NIH provide unredacted copies of certain documents to ascertain whether or not they were improperly redacted.
In 2021, the deleted Covid gene sequences in question were discovered in a Google cloud database by a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The findings were revealed in an academic paper authored by Dr. Jesse D. Bloom.
“The origin and early spread of SARS-CoV-2 remains shrouded in mystery,” Bloom writes. “Here I identify a data set containing SARS-CoV-2 sequences from early in the Wuhan epidemic that has been deleted from the NIH’s Sequence Read Archive. I recover the deleted files from the Google Cloud, and reconstruct partial sequences of 13 early epidemic viruses.”
“Phylogenetic analysis of these sequences in the context of carefully annotated existing data suggests that the Huanan Seafood Market sequences that are the focus of the joint WHO-China report are not fully representative of the viruses in Wuhan early in the epidemic,” Bloom significantly notes. “Instead, the progenitor of known SARS-CoV-2 sequences likely contained three mutations relative to the market viruses that made it more similar to SARS-CoV-2’s bat coronavirus relatives.”
The NIH, which encompasses 27 federal agencies, including the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, has attempted to explain the deletion.
“Submitting investigators hold the rights to their data and can request withdrawal of the data,” the NIH said in a statement. The issue is whether it is ethical to cover up perhaps one of the greatest crimes, if not one of the most egregious lies, committed by any government in the 21st century.
Dr. Bloom told the Wall Street Journal that the removal of the gene sequences ‘sows doubts about China’s transparency in the continuing investigation into the origin of the pandemic.’ Other scientific experts agreed with Dr. Bloom.
“It makes us wonder if there are other sequences like these that have been purged,” said Vaughn S. Cooper, a University of Pittsburgh evolutionary biologist.
The Wall Street Journal put the deletion of the gene sequences in context.
“To pursue the origin of the pandemic, scientists need access to information that could shed light on how the virus emerged into the human population and began spreading,” WSJ said. “The removal of information from a database can make it harder for them to find it, potentially slowing their research, as can lack of access to other research.”
The influence of China on the United States’ reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic is undeniable and disturbing. It is in the hands of justice to attempt to bring much-needed public light on this case, which may provide a valuable piece to the puzzle about what really drove the United States’ Covid response.
OPINION: This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion.