Chinese researchers accused of deleting SARS-CoV-2 sequences

241 coronavirus sequences were deleted from a database. An American scientist has recovered 13

He assures that these sequences are from versions of SARS-CoV-2 prior to the first known ones from Wuhan

The work has generated controversy because several experts consider that it has gone too far in its conclusions

A new investigation into the origin of the pandemic is dividing experts, in the middle of a story that takes on detective overtones. In June 2020 they were deleted from a database widely used by the scientific community more than 200 genetic sequences of some of the first coronavirus infections in Wuhan. An American researcher has managed to recover 13 of them and has detected differences with the first viruses identified in the famous seafood market in the city.

According to his hypothesis, these sequences They are older than the market and that suggests that there were outbreaks of coronavirus before that recognized by China and that after an attempt has been made to erase some of the tracks. So far, Chinese researchers have not responded to any requests to explain why they deleted the genetic sequences.

“Erased to hide their existence”

Bloom recognizes that her work has nothing to do with what could have happened in the laboratory, but she casts doubt on the amount of information generated in China at the beginning of the pandemic that there may still be to know.

The link removed

He began to investigate the origin of the infections in China dissatisfied with the role of the WHO and came up with a study published in March 2020 that analyzed 241 genetic sequences from patients at Renmin hospital in Wuhan. The document included a link to a database at the United States National Library of Medicine with the data. But that link led nowhere. The information was erased.

The same Chinese researchers from the first article later published another based on the same information, but they no longer offered all the sequences of the viruses, only some of their mutations.

13 sequences from a virus before the Wuhan market

The authors of these articles did not respond to Bloom’s messages (neither have they responded to those of Science magazine or The New York Times), so he tracked the information and saw that several of the sequences had been stored in Google Cloud, all with names that followed a similar format. This allowed him to recover 13.

Then he compared those sequences with those known from the first infections in the Wuhan market and according to his analysis he discovered that they have to be previous to those detected in the supposed zero zone of the epidemic.

Three key mutations and a family tree

The information on the genetic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 specimens is very valuable. Every time the virus replicates, it generates copy failures, mutations that alter its genetics and help compose its family tree.

SARS-CoV-2 came to humans from, most likely, bats. But ehe most similar bat virus known, found in 2013, has 1,100 nucleotides different from the viruses of the first patients. The Wuhan viruses have in particular three characteristic mutations that differentiate them from that bat specimen. The 13 recovered by Bloom, no.

“They are three steps more similar to bat coronaviruses than the viruses found in the Wuhan market, ”he explains. That they lack these three alterations means, according to their hypothesis, that they are prior. But, in theory, they belong to patients after the first outbreak. That’s why Bloom believes that actually by the time the alarm was sounded in the market, Several different lineages of the coronavirus were already circulating beyond Wuhan.

The erasure request

Bloom’s deductive work is being controversial, in part because he attributes an intention to the erasure of the sequences. “Perhaps the image we have of what was in Wuhan at the beginning based on what has been sequenced may be skewed”, he assures.

The National Library of Medicine, which manages the database in which the 241 genetic sequences were deleted, has assured in a statement that it was the same researcher who uploaded them in early 2020 who demanded their withdrawal in June of the same year. He did not explain the cause, but assured that they would be incorporated into other databases. Bloom responds that after tracking down all the ones she knows she has been able to find them.

Too suspicious

Among those who criticize an excess of suspicions on the part of Bloom is the evolutionary virologist Andrew Rambaut who defends in the journal Science the work of Chinese scientists and explains that with only 13 sequences not so many conclusions can be drawn. In addition, you consider the suspicions about the deletion absurd, because it ensures that the second article of the Wuhan scientists offers the key information. Bloom acknowledges that through this document the genetic sequences can be put back together, but in his opinion it makes the process difficult because researchers usually limit themselves to going to databases when they need that information.

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