Chinese lab sequenced COVID-19 two weeks before authorities disclosed findings

A Chinese researcher submitted a virus sequence of COVID-19 to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) database in December 2019, two weeks before Beijing released the virus’s genome sequence, according to federal documents obtained by a House committee.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee obtained documents from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) confirming that Lili Ren, a virologist at the Institute of Pathogen Biology of Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, submitted data to the NIH GenBank on Dec. 28, 2019. GenBank is a genetic sequence database maintained by the NIH.

The two-week lag between when the sequence was submitted to the U.S. database and eventually released publicly by China appears to bolster claims that Beijing hid key information as the world was trying to understand and respond to the deadly new virus.

News of the submission was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The committee noted that Ren is a subgrantee of the EcoHealth Alliance nonprofit, the organization that previously awarded NIH grants to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and came under scrutiny during the pandemic.

In correspondence with the committee, the HHS characterized this submission as “incomplete” and lacking the “necessary information required for publication.”

“Following established quality control processes during which NCBI staff review technical, but not scientific or public health, details, a resubmission request was issued to Lili Ren on December 31, 2019, with notification that if the additional information requested was not provided by January 14, 2020, then the original submission would be removed from the processing queue,” the HHS stated in its letter to the committee.

A new submission from Ren was never received. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention publicized a sequence “nearly identical” to the one submitted by Ren about two weeks later, Jan. 10, 2020, saying it released the sequence as soon as it was available.

“This significant discovery further underscores why we 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,” GOP Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Brett Guthrie (Ky.) and Morgan Griffith (Va.) said in a statement.

“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 trio added.

When reached for comment, an HHS spokesperson said the submission from Ren was “unable to be verified, despite follow-ups by NIH to the Chinese scientist for more information.”

“While waiting for the submitter to provide information to verify the sequence, another submission of a nearly identical sequence but with verifiable details was submitted to GenBank by another group and verified for inclusion on January 12, 2020, providing the genetic sequence for SARS-CoV-2.,” said the spokesperson. “This publicly available information was what was used by NIH scientists and others in their work to understand the origins of COVID-19.”

“We agree that valuable, bipartisan work remains to address the Chinese government’s lack of transparency and ensure investigators can access critical information about the origin of COVID-19, so we can better understand how to prevent future pandemics,” they added.

The Hill has reached out to the Chinese Embassy for comment.

–Updated at 2:47 p.m.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.