The National Institutes of Health deleted two “sequencing runs” of pangolin coronavirus from its National Library of Medicine (NLM) at a Chinese researcher’s request on the eve of U.S. COVID-19 lockdowns, months before a previously known removal requested by a different Chinese researcher, according to newly disclosed records.
Now the agency is trying to convince a federal court to seal portions of those records and a litigant’s filing that name the earlier Chinese researcher and his NIH handler, claiming it “inadvertently failed” to redact them in responding to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit.
The government is trying to “put the toothpaste back in the tube,” said Empower Oversight founder Jason Foster, whose whistleblower support group filed the lawsuit last fall.
The former Senate Judiciary Committee investigator told the John Solomon Reports podcast the feds are suddenly “moving heaven and earth” when it comes to the privacy of a researcher “associated with the Chinese government” and information that could shed light on “the origins of the pandemic.”
This is “a huge contrast to what we see them doing” with U.S. government whistleblowers, including a case he’s working on, Foster said.
The first emails obtained by Empower in the lawsuit showed an NIH staffer agreeing to remove a genetic sequence from public view in June 2020 upon the request of a Wuhan University researcher and asking for clarification on whether to remove another sequence. Both names were redacted.
NIH filed a motion for summary judgment last month, claiming it had fulfilled Empower’s FOIA requests but also invoking an exemption from disclosure “because of the amount of misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and its origin.”
Empower responded July 11 by noting media reporting that while only 0.19% of 2.4 million SRA submissions of DNA sequencing data had been withdrawn from March 2020-March 2021, more than 200 entries for “early COVID-19 cases” were removed in summer 2020.
It said the agency violated FOIA by first responding “months too late” to both its requests, hiding responsive records that are not “deliberative” because they lack “give-and-take consultation,” and failing to conduct “searches reasonably calculated to lead to responsive records.”
Foster offered an alternate explanation to the John Solomon Reports podcast. The March 2020 revelation shows NIH made “multiple deletions” of “public information that Jesse Bloom had access to” and brought to the agency’s attention, he said. “It’s not some kind of private government information or classified information.”
The irony of the Privacy Act is that “the government almost exclusively uses it not to protect you and me, but to protect themselves,” Foster said.
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