The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chinese scientist filed covid sequence weeks before official release, records show

People wear protective suits in April 2020 at a cemetery in Wuhan, China, then the epicenter of the country’s covid-19 cases. (Aly Song/Reuters)
4 min

A Chinese scientist sought to publish the genetic profile of the coronavirus two weeks before Beijing formally released the sequence, according to federal documents shared with a congressional committee and released Wednesday. The delay may have slowed researchers’ work on tests, treatments and vaccines to combat the virus.

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 Dec. 28, 2019, Lili Ren, 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 U.S. 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 Jan. 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 Jan. 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.

Public health experts who reviewed the documents said 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.

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.

“The American people deserve to know the truth about the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and our investigation has uncovered numerous causes for concern, including how taxpayers’ dollars are spent, how our government’s public health agencies operate, and the need for more oversight into research grants to foreign scientists,” the Republicans said.

Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who has written about Chinese scientists’ efforts to sequence the virus in mid-December 2019, said the documents bolster experts’ understanding of how some Chinese physicians and researchers were trying to share information before government officials clamped down on those efforts.

“There’s clear evidence now that there were many efforts underway to sequence this virus much earlier than first reported … and those are just the efforts we know about,” Gottlieb said in an interview Wednesday. He added that he was more concerned by Chinese leaders’ reaction in early January 2020 to instruct local laboratories not to publish genomic information related to the virus, stifling communication.

“That is what we need to get to the bottom of — why the normal activity you’d expect among scientists trying to investigate an unusual pathogen got squelched by government authorities,” Gottlieb said.

Several experts said that a Chinese scientist’s efforts to share information early about the virus did not influence their views on whether the pandemic began with a laboratory leak in China, as some scientists and politicians have theorized.

“I don’t think this submission tells us anything about the origin of SARS-CoV-2,” Bloom said. “What I think this shows … [is] the Chinese government wasn’t immediately transparent about how quickly they learned about the cause of this outbreak.”