Chinese scientist's early attempt to publish Coronavirus genetic profile raises questions

PoliCharcha | Updated: January 19, 2024, 11:06 AM

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Chinese scientist's early attempt to publish Coronavirus genetic profile raises questions

Federal documents shared with a US congressional committee reveal that a Chinese scientist sought to publish the genetic profile of the coronavirus two weeks before Beijing officially released the sequence, according to The Washington Post.

The delayed disclosure may have impeded global efforts in developing tests, treatments, and vaccines to combat the virus.

On December 28, 2019, 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 US National Institutes of Health, reported The Washington Post.

However, GenBank's review process flagged the submission three days later, indicating it was incomplete and requesting additional annotations. The scientist's submission was eventually deleted from GenBank's processing queue on January 16, 2020, after failing to provide the necessary information.

Meanwhile, a separate team of Chinese researchers submitted a "nearly identical" genetic sequence to GenBank, which was published on January 12, 2020.

Experts caution that this development, while raising questions about information sharing in the early days of the pandemic, does not offer substantive insight into the virus's origins.

Nevertheless, public health experts argue that the missed opportunity to publish the genetic sequence submitted by the Chinese scientist hindered understanding at the beginning of the global health emergency.

The failure to publish the genetic sequence submitted by Ren is “retroactively painful”, stated virologist Jesse Bloom of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. Bloom emphasised the crucial role genetic sequences play in developing medical interventions and suggested that earlier access to the information could have expedited the development of tests and vaccines.

"That two weeks would have made a tangible difference in quite a few people's lives," Bloom remarked, underscoring the potential impact of the delayed publication.

The genetic sequence submitted by the Chinese scientist in December 2019, predating global awareness of the virus outbreak, was never publicly accessible on GenBank, containing over 3.8 billion published records, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

In response to these revelations, House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders expressed concern about whether Chinese officials have been transparent about the virus. House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, health subcommittee chair Brett Guthrie, and oversight subcommittee chair Morgan Griffith issued a statement, highlighting the need for further investigation into the matter.