The genetic details of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, was reportedly entered into a database managed by the National Institutes of Health two weeks before the same information was released by the Chinese government, according to documents shared with US lawmakers.
The sequence that was submitted before the Chinese submission does not detail the origins of the virus, but does call into question the timeline given by the Chinese government concerning its knowledge about the virus, according to CNN.
If the genetic information had been noted when it was first submitted, it could have provided several additional weeks for world governments to prepare to mitigate its spread and work on vaccines.
The first genetic sequence was submitted by Dr Lili Ren of the Institute of Pathogen Biology at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences & Peking Union Medical College on 28 December, 2019. The information was sent to GenBank, which serves as a repository that "collects, preserves, and provides public access to assembled and annotated nucleotide sequence data from all domains of life."
The submission was flagged to US lawmakers in a letter by Dr Melanie Egorin, the assistant secretary of legislation at the US Department of Health and Human Services. The letter was sent to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers in December.
The National Centre for Biotechnology Information, which is part of the US National Institutes of Health, manages GenBank.
Dr Ren's submission was reportedly incomplete and needed additional information in order to meet the standards for submission to GenBank, according to the letter. The doctor was asked to resubmit her genetic sequence with the necessary information, but she reportedly never sent any further information.
The submission was in process, but was removed on 16 January 2020. It never appeared publicly on GenBank, according to the letter.
On 12 January, a "nearly identical" submission was made to GenBank. The day prior, China submitted its genetic sequence to the World Health Organisation.
Dr Jesse Bloom of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Centre analysed Dr Ren's submission, and concluded that it “clearly falsifies the Chinese government’s claim that the causative agent of the Wuhan pneumonia outbreak still had not been identified near the end of the first week of January 2020.”
The analysis further concluded that the initial submission would have provided adequate information to initiate vaccine production in late 2019 if it had been made public."
Dr Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Translational Institute said that even two weeks of forewarning “would have made a huge difference in the pandemic,” according to CNN.