March 29, 2022

UPDATE: On April 8, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of the Eastern District of Virginia presided over a hearing between NIH and Empower Oversight regarding a motion to vacate the previously agreed upon scheduling order to allow for more flexibility. The Judge told NIH: “Now, it’s been my experience, having worked…for the executive branch at one point, that when a request comes in from a U.S. senator, that that often goes to the highest echelons within the department. And so it struck me, for example, that scope might have to go beyond just your — that subset — subagency.

“I don’t know, again, what the practice or policy is at NIH when you get a congressional request. Is there a central office that handles all communications with members of Congress that would cover all of the subagencies within that department? I’m not convinced that the declaration that you provided actually covered that.”

WASHINGTON — Empower Oversight is releasing a report detailing an initial tranche of 238 pages of National Institutes of Health (NIH) documents relating to the termination of public access to coronavirus genetic sequences from NIH’s Sequence Read Archive (SRA) at the request of a researcher from China’s Wuhan University in June 2020. 

Since July 2021, Empower Oversight—through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and litigation in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia—has sought records related the controversy over the NIH agreeing to remove information from the SRA and its failure to respond to related questions from a group of U.S. Senators. 

“Discovering the origin of COVID-19 is vital to ensuring that no pandemic like it ever happens again. Yet, shortly after it began, the NIH bowed to the wishes of researchers in Wuhan to terminate public access to genetic sequences that could shed light on how it began,” said Jason Foster, Founder and President of Empower Oversight. 

In conjunction with its release of the initial tranche of 238 pages of NIH documents, Empower Oversight is publishing a report of key findings that can be gleaned from them.  These findings include:

  • NIH initially declined a Wuhan University researcher’s request to terminate public access on the SRA to one set of coronavirus genetic sequences before agreeing to a later request from the same researcher to terminate public access on the SRA to a second set of coronavirus genetic sequences.  Further, in connection with its agreement to terminate public access to the second set of coronavirus genetic sequences, NIH offered to remove both sets of coronavirus genetic sequences (these two sets of coronavirus genetic sequences are hereinafter collectively referred to as “the sequences”)
  • Immediately prior to the publication of a paper by an American Scholar, Dr. Jesse Bloom, which revealed NIH’s termination of public access to the sequences, NIH Director Francis Collins and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci hosted a conference call of experts to discuss the termination and conclusions about the sequences that had been drawn by Dr. Bloom, who had been able to reconstruct some of them from the Cloud.  One of the invitees advised the conferees that the sequences seemed to support the theory that the pandemic began outside of the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan and that they needed to be analyzed further.
  • After publication of Dr. Blooms paper, in “off-the-record” emails, an NIH communications official steered reporters toward more favorable coverage concerning termination of public access to the sequences by The Washington Post, and away from coverage by The New York Times, whose “tone” had been criticized in communications among NIH officials.  Additionally, NIH’s communications staff appears to have provided reporters with inaccurate information concerning NIH’s policy for terminating public access to genetic sequences on the SRA.
  • Although NIH claims that it retains copies of the sequences “for preservation purposes,” it refused to examine them in a transparent process.
  • Dr. Bloom pressed NIH about a separate set of coronavirus genetic sequences whose public access also had been terminated on the SRA, claiming that they were being examined by “an investigative entity.”

In addition to Empower Oversight’s FOIA request and lawsuit (with an amended complaint), it has focused on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic since last year, releasing a COVID-19 origins timeline in September 2021. In January 2022, Empower Oversight sent a letter to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt regarding that state’s civil suit against China and its Community Party, along with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences for their roles in the global pandemic.

If you have first-hand information you’d like to disclose to assist Empower Oversight with these inquiries, please contact us confidentially here.