Documents Alter Our Understanding of Early COVID Timeline

'WSJ' reports China had largely sequenced the virus 2 weeks before it told the world it did
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 17, 2024 1:20 PM CST
Documents Alter Our Understanding of Early COVID Timeline
This 2020 electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, which cause COVID-19.   (Hannah A. Bullock, Azaibi Tamin/CDC via AP, File)

Just two weeks separated Jan. 11, 2020, and Dec. 28, 2019, but in the Wall Street Journal's reporting, they were 14 meaningful days: ones in which China had sequenced the virus that causes COVID-19 but had not yet shared that information with the world. It reports that during those days, China maintained that a viral pneumonia "of unknown cause" was causing an outbreak in Wuhan. And yet a Beijing-based scientist uploaded an almost complete sequence of the virus's structure to a genetic database run by the US National Institutes of Health on Dec. 28, 2019. China didn't share the virus's sequence with the World Health Organization until Jan. 11, 2020.

As for how the timeline tweak emerged, the Journal reports that Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee warned the Department of Health and Human Services it would subpoena it to get access to documents related to the early phase of the pandemic. Those documents were handed over, with Melanie Egorin, HHS' assistant secretary for legislation, explaining that Dr. Lili Ren submitted the sequence to the GenBank database, but that it wasn't published because it was missing technical (but not scientific) details. The NIH requested those details from Ren three days after her submission and got no reply; as such, the submission was deleted on Jan. 16, 2020.

NIH published a COVID-19 sequence it obtained from another source on Jan. 12, 2020, that "was nearly identical to the sequence that was submitted by Lili Ren," per Egorin. The Journal's take on the significance of the development: "The new information doesn't shed light on the debate over whether COVID emerged from an infected animal or a lab leak, but it suggests that the world still doesn't have a full accounting of the pandemic's origin." Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers shares another takeaway: that "the NIH's system for monitoring GenBank submissions is insufficient, as the United States had an early SARS-CoV-2 sequence in our possession and apparently had no idea." (More COVID-19 stories.)

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