In late December 2019, eight pages of genetic code were sent to computers at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
Unknown to U.S. officials at the time, the genetic map that landed on their doorstep contained critical clues about the virus that would soon spark a pandemic.
The genetic code, submitted by Chinese scientists to a vast public repository of sequencing data run by the U.S. government, described a mysterious new virus that had infected a 65-year-old man weeks earlier in Wuhan. At the time the code was sent, Chinese authorities had not yet warned of an unexplained pneumonia that was sickening patients in the central city of Wuhan.
But the U.S. repository, designed to help scientists share common research data, never added the submission it received on Dec. 28, 2019, to its database. Instead, he asked Chinese scientists three days later to resubmit the genetic sequence with some additional technical details. This request remained unanswered.
It took almost two additional weeks for two separate virologists, one from Australia and the other from China, to work together to publish the genetic code of the new coronavirus onlinesparking a frenzied global effort to save lives by developing tests and vaccines.
Chinese scientists’ initial attempt to make the crucial code public was first revealed in documents released Wednesday by House Republicans investigating the origins of Covid. The documents reinforce questions that have been circulating since early 2020 about when China learned of the virus that caused its unexplained outbreak — and also call attention to gaps in the U.S. system for monitoring dangerous new pathogens.
The Chinese government said it quickly shared the genetic code of the virus with global health authorities. House Republicans said the new documents suggested that was false. News accounts And Chinese social media posts have long reported that the virus was first sequenced in late December 2019.
But lawmakers and independent scientists said the documents offered tantalizing new details about when and how scientists first tried to share such footage globally, illustrating the difficulty states have -United to select terrible pathogens from the thousands of mundane genetic sequences that are submitted to its repository every day.
“You would never get an ambulance in normal traffic at 3 p.m.,” said Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport. Referring to the 2019 coronavirus code, he said: “Why would you allow this sequence to sit there under the same process as a sequence I just received from a new species of snail I found in a ravine ?
An advocate for the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the NIH, said in a statement Wednesday that the genetic code was not released because it “could not be verified, despite follow-ups conducted by the NIH to the Chinese scientist for more information. information and a response.
In a earlier letter to House RepublicansMélanie Anne Egorin, a senior health ministry official, said the footage had initially been subjected to “technical, but not scientific or public health” review, as is customary. Having not received a response from Chinese scientists regarding the requested corrections, the database, known as GenBank, automatically removed the submission from its unpublished sequence queue on January 16, 2020.
It is unclear why the Chinese scientists did not respond. One of the submitters, Lili Ren, who worked at a pathogen institute at the state-affiliated Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, did not respond to a request for comment. comments. The Chinese embassy said China’s response was “science-based, effective and consistent with China’s national realities.”
But the same sequence that Dr. Ren’s group sent to GenBank was made public on another online database, known as GISAID, on January 12, 2020, shortly after other scientists published the first code of the coronavirus. Dr. Ren’s group also resubmitted a corrected version of the code to GenBank in early February And published an article describing his work.
The two-week gap between the initial sending of the code to the US database and China’s sharing of the sequence with global health officials “underscores why we cannot trust any of the so-called ” facts” or data” from the Chinese government, the health ministry said. Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee he said.
Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, said the genetic sequence would have strongly suggested to anyone looking at it in late December 2019 that a novel coronavirus was behind the mysterious pneumonia cases in Wuhan. Instead, official Chinese timelines indicate that the government only made this diagnosis in early January.
“If this sequence had been made available, the vaccine prototypes probably could have been launched immediately, and that was two weeks earlier than expected,” Dr. Bloom said.
The documents, first reported by the Wall Street Journaldo not provide information about the origins of the virus, Dr. Bloom and other scientists said, since the sequence did not contain particular clues about the evolution of the virus and was anyway subsequently made public.
But they offer new details about the pace at which Dr. Ren’s team worked to sequence the virus. The swab containing the virus that they analyzed was taken from the 65-year-old patient, a seller at the large market where the disease first spread, on December 24, 2019. In four days, the scientists sent genetic data for this virus at GenBank.
“It’s incredibly fast,” said Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute.
At the time, the discovery of a new coronavirus in the patient’s sample would not have proven that it was that pathogen, and not another virus or bacteria, that caused his illness, a said Dr. Andersen, although that would have been a reasonable assumption.
This consideration seems to weigh on Chinese scientists who are studying samples from the first patients. A researcher at a Chinese commercial laboratory who worked with Dr. Ren wrote about a blog end of January 2020 that even though it had identified a new virus in hospital samples, that alone did not demonstrate that the virus was causing cases of pneumonia, slowing down an official announcement.
In early 2020, the Chinese government also issued guidelines discouraging certain lines of scientific research and limiting the release of data on the virus.
Even once the virus’s genetic code was sent to the U.S. repository, it would have been difficult for U.S. officials responsible for the research-focused database to take note of it. The repository contains hundreds of millions of genetic sequences. Much of the selection process is automated.
And at least until Chinese authorities started sounding the alarm at the very end of December 2019, almost no one would have known to look for a new coronavirus among the piles of submissions.
“At the time, there was no way anyone at NCBI realized the importance of this,” said Alexander Crits-Christoph, a computational biologist, referring to the NIH center that runs GenBank. Beyond that, he said, genetic repositories like GenBank need to be careful about publicly releasing sequences, given that researchers often use the same data to prepare journal articles.
Still, some scientists say health officials in the United States and around the world have been slow to modernize databases like GenBank to allow them to capture sequences that could have critical implications for public health.
Such a database could, for example, automatically search for new pathogens whose genetic codes overlap with those known to be dangerous, Dr. Kamil said. And it could ensure that such footage is released more widely, even as health officials wait for missing details or revisions.
“Give this footage into the care of a janitor, my God,” he said. “Why haven’t the agencies in charge of public health or global health stepped up their game and said, ‘It’s 2024, we need to be safer so things like this don’t happen again ? »