NIH Director Says Error Was Made When Chinese Sequencing Data Was Pulled Offline

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Dr. Lawrence Tabak, acting director of the National Institutes of Health, left, and fellow NIH official Diana Bianchi testify on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2022. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Epoch Times

By Zachary Stieber

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) made an error when it took COVID-19 sequencing data offline, the agency’s head said on May 11.

“In the way it was originally eliminated from public view, it was ‘withdrawn.’ And that’s the most difficult for people to access. The error that was made—and we found this out after a review of all of our processes—is, it should have been ‘suppressed,’” Dr. Lawrence Tabak, the acting NIH director, told members of Congress during a hearing in Washington.

Sequences that are withdrawn are kept, but only on a tape drive. In contrast, information that is suppressed can still be accessed by its identifying number, “and so researchers are still able to access that information,” Tabak said.

The doctor did not share more details about the error and the NIH did not respond to a request for comment.

The sequencing data was submitted to the Sequence Read Archive, a database managed by the NIH, in early 2020. The data showed sequences of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus. Also known as SARS-CoV-2, the virus causes COVID-19.

About three months after it was posted, the same researcher who submitted the data asked for it to be “retracted,” according to emails obtained by a nonprofit called Empower Oversight. The NIH agreed to take the information offline.

The action was first disclosed by Jesse Bloom, an American researcher, in June 2021.

The agency “has no plans to change the policy that recognizes submitters rights to their own data and the right to petition that their data be withdrawn,” an NIH spokesperson said in a previous statement in response to Bloom’s paper.

Both Bloom and Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH’s director until late 2021, described what happened as the deletion of data. The NIH has since contested that description.

On Wednesday, Tabak was questioned by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) as he appeared before the House Appropriations Committee.

Beutler said she’d been tracking reports of the deletions since 2021 and asserted there were “rational concerns that the Chinese Communist Party had something to do” with the sequencing being taken offline and asked what the NIH was doing to secure the archive from such efforts.

“There’s no question that the communication that we had about the sequence archive could have been improved. I freely admit that,” Tabak said. “If I may, the archive never deleted the sequence. It just did not make it available for interrogation. We have the information.”

“Anybody who submits to the Sequence Read Archive is allowed to ask for it to be removed, and that investigator did do that. But we never erase it,” he said.

When the information was withdrawn, it could not be accessed by researchers or other members of the public. When it was changed to a suppressed status at a later time, researchers who knew its identifying number could view it.

Empower Oversight President Jason Foster told The Epoch Times that the way the data was handled effectively deleted it.

“NIH documents released with Empower Oversight’s report demonstrate that the sequencing data was deleted from public view by the NIH at the request of the Wuhan researcher,” he said.

In giving out the emails to the nonprofit and other organizations, the NIH redacted the name of the Chinese researcher who submitted and requested the retraction. Internal emails suggest it was Ming Wang, who works at the Hospital of Wuhan University and later included some of the data in a paper published by Small.

Chinese officials said that the retraction was requested because the researchers found it “unnecessary” to keep their data in the NIH database when it was being published elsewhere.

The emails show Bloom gave top NIH officials, including Collins and Tabak, notice of his forthcoming paper, with Collins calling what Bloom did “clever sleuthing” that discovered sequences “that were deposited (and then deleted)” from the archive.

After Bloom sent the version of his paper to a preprint website, a conference call was held on the subject that included Dr. Anthony Fauci, Collins, Tabak, and Bloom, among others. Bloom alleged that Dr. Kristian Anderson, a critic of the theory that the virus came from a Chinese lab, said he was a screener at the website and could delete the submitted paper or revise it, according to notes from the call (pdf). Andersen told Vanity Fair the allegations were false.

The Epoch Times has submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for information pertaining to the call and for the review of the archive processes.

Mark Tapscott contributed to this report.