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Chinese scientists mapped out the genetic makeup of the pandemic-causing coronavirus nearly a month before it was made public, raising questions about what those scientists knew and when they knew it.
A congressional committee obtained federal government documents showing that Dr Lili Ren, a scientist at the Beijing-based Institute of Pathogen Biology, sequenced the novel virus on December 28, which at the time the government was calling viral pneumonia ‘of unknown cause’.
It confirms suspicions that the Chinese were studying the virus before announcing it to the world – a delay experts say cost countless of lives.
A Chinese researcher in Beijing uploaded a nearly complete sequence of the virus’s structure to a US government-run database on December 28, 2019, weeks before it was made public to global scientists
Rep Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a high-ranking member of the Republican-led Energy and Commerce Committee, said that China intentionally held back crucial information
The fully sequenced virus – which would have allowed scientists to begin developing drugs and vaccines, and given them a better understanding of how the virus behaves – was not made available to the World Health Organization until January 11.
Dr Ren uploaded the genetic mapping of the virus to a database run by the National Institutes of Health, but the first known publication came on January 11.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said the virus sequence was shared with China’s equivalent of the CDC on January 5 but not made known globally to scientists.
The latest revelation from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over health-related issues, adds to a long list of clues that the Chinese government obscured valuable information about the virus, its origins, and how widely it had spread.
Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, told the Wall Street Journal: ‘[It] underscores how cautious we have to be about the accuracy of the information that the Chinese government has released.
‘It’s important to keep in mind how little we know.’
Rep Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a high-ranking member of the Republican-led Energy and Commerce Committee, said that China intentionally held back crucial information. Since then, over a million people have died, and even more have gotten very sick.
The Republican said the fact that Chinese scientists sequenced the virus well before it was made public shows the US ‘cannot trust any of the so-called ‘facts’ or data provided by the CCP and calls into serious question the legitimacy of any scientific theories based on such information.’
Dr Ren is documented in contractual records as a participant in a project funded by the U.S. This project aims to investigate the transmission of coronaviruses from animals to humans.
After uploading the sequence to the NIH database, Dr Ren took it down on January 16 when the US agency prodded her for more questions about her finding. On January 12, NIH received and published a SARS-CoV-2 sequence from another source.
Her research, which involved the collection of bat samples in China, was supervised by the nonprofit organization EcoHealth Alliance, which came to global attention in the wake of the pandemic for its role in funding ‘risky’ research at the WIV prior to Covid emerging.
It has since emerged EcoHealth Alliance provided WIV $3.3million for experiments.
While the committee’s findings do not offer details about the potential that the coronavirus could have resulted from research that made the virus more virulent and/or transmissible, the seemingly purposeful move to obscure those details delayed much needed time to tamp down the spread across the US.