An eye-opening 238 pages of just-released documents from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) disclose that in June 2020—at the request of researchers at China’s Wuhan University—the NIH deleted information about COVID-19 genetic sequencing. The tranche of emails, obtained by the non-partisan group Empower Oversight following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, reveal the frenzy of activity at the NIH following the deletions and show that an expert advised then NIH Director Francis Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci that the coronavirus driving the global pandemic originated outside of the Wuhan food market as asserted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Requested last summer, the documents obtained by Empower Oversight highlight the circumstances surrounding the significant deletions by the NIH and are in stark contrast to the agency’s “best practices of scientific openness and collaboration.”
On July 14, 2021, following Bloom’s article, Empower Oversight filed a FOIA request with the NIH, seeking transparency about controversial deletions from the SRA “within the next 20 days.” With open, global cooperation as the intended goal, the agency operates the database as part of its participation in the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration (INSDC) to “capture, organize, preserve and present nucleotide sequence data as part of the open scientific record.” Echoing this objective, a statement released by INSDC on SARS-CoV-2 sequence data sharing during the pandemic reinforced the need for mutual effort and transparency. The group asserted, “The global COVID-19 crisis has brought an urgent need for the rapid open sharing of data related to the outbreak.”
Undoubtedly, the global pandemic set the stage for the mandatory requirement of transparency. Frustrated, after four months and no response from the NIH to its FOIA request, on Nov. 17, 2021, Empower Oversight filed a lawsuit (with an amended complaint) against the agency to force its compliance with the FOIA and obtain the requested documents. Commenting on the 238-page batch of emails finally received, Empower Oversight notes that NIH’s FOIA staff has made significant errors when searching for relevant records and reviewing records for FOIA exemptions, resulting in erroneously redacted content. Nonetheless, the documents shared by the NIH thus far contain crucial new information.
Interestingly, Empower Oversight notes that “the researcher’s first rationale for removal was compliant with the NIH’s conditions for removal, but his latter rationale was not.” The day after the researcher’s second request, the NIH agreed to the deletion and sought clarification from the Wuhan University researcher on whether the previous submission should also be deleted, despite the agency’s refusal to remove it a week earlier. The researcher responded, indicating they wanted both submissions, as well as all related bioprojects and biosamples, removed.
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