The data included virus gene sequences collected from some of the first individuals in Wuhan to contract the virus, according to virologist Jesse Bloom, who first noticed that the gene sequences were missing from the NIH database.
These sequences were submitted to the NIH in March of 2020, but three months later a Chinese scientist asked U.S. officials to pull the data completely, the Wall Street Journal reported.
According to the NIH, the researcher asked the sequences to be removed because they had been updated and rerouted to a different, unspecified database.
It is still not clear whether these sequences were actually transferred to another database.
The NIH defended its decision to comply with China’s request, saying researchers have a right to submit and withdraw data.
“Submitting investigators hold the rights to their data and can request withdrawal of the data,” the agency said in a statement.
Bloom argued the deletion of the sequences created “a somewhat skewed picture of viruses circulating in Wuhan early on.”
Access to those sequences could have helped U.S. scientists determine how the coronavirus spread among humans sooner and how it might have originated, he said.
“It suggests possibly one reason why we haven’t seen more of these sequences is perhaps there hasn’t been a wholehearted effort to get them out there,” he explained.
Vaughn Cooper, an evolutionary biologist with the University of Pittsburgh, said the news raises questions about other information China hid from the international community.
“It makes us wonder if there are other sequences like these that have been purged,” he said.
On Thursday, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri wrote to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, asking them to explain the purged gene sequences.
“I’m growing concerned that the NIH is not taking the CCP’s obstruction and its motives seriously, especially following evidence that NIH dollars may have found their way to the Wuhan Institute of Virology…,” Hawley wrote. “The American people need to know the extent of the CCP’s influence at the NIH and the CCP’s role in obscuring the origins of a pandemic that has claimed over 600,000 American lives.”