Professor Jesse Bloom found dozens of test samples from the earliest confirmed Covid patients in epicentre Wuhan had been pulled by Chinese scientists from an international database
Chinese scientists have deleted crucial data from the earliest confirmed Covid patients, it emerged today amid intense scrutiny about the true origins of the disease.
Dozens of test samples from patients in epicentre Wuhan were found to have been wiped from an international database used to track the virus’ evolution.
The files could have provided vital clues about how the virus originated and how long it had been spreading before the seafood market outbreak in December 2019.
The American professor who spotted their deletion and managed to recover some of the data said they suggested Covid was circulating long before China‘s official timeline.
He found the early samples of the virus were more evolved than would be expected of a pathogen that had recently jumped from animals to humans — but did not say it gave more weight to the ‘lab leak’ theory.
Professor Jesse Bloom, a virologist from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, said he believed China had removed the files to ‘obscure their existence’.
British scientists told MailOnline the findings confirm Covid was spreading in people before being linked to wet markets, ‘perhaps months before’.
The latest cover-up comes amid mounting suspicion the virus may have accidentally leaked from a high-level biosecurity laboratory in Wuhan.
Giving evidence to a House of Lords select committee today, the UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said there was a ‘real need to make sure that we understand what’s going on’ in high-grade virology labs.
In a tweet earlier this morning, Boris Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings said Professor Bloom’s find pointed further ‘towards’ the ‘lab leak’ theory.
The files (shown to have been removed, above) could have provided vital clues about how the virus originated and how long it had been spreading before the outbreak was reported in December 2019
While China has tried to insist the virus originated elsewhere, academics, politicians and the media have begun to contemplate the possibility it leaked from a high-level biochemical lab in Wuhan – raising suspicions that Chinese officials simply hid evidence of the early spread
The cover-up was detailed in a scientific paper titled ‘Recovery of deleted deep sequencing data sheds more light on the early Wuhan SARS-CoV-2 epidemic’ today.
Forty-five positive samples had originally been uploaded to the National Institute of Health‘s (NIH) Sequence Read Archive by the Wuhan University in early March 2020.
The NIH is a US Government agency responsible for biomedical and public health research.
The samples were published as part of a study into diagnosing Covid patients using PCR tests – just days before the Chinese Government issued an order requiring approval of the publication of all coronavirus data.
Professor Bloom noted all 45 samples have since been pulled from the database, with ‘no plausible scientific reason for the deletion’.
He said the most likely explanation was to ‘abuse’ and ‘obscure’ the truth about the origins of the pandemic.
The professor explained scientists can get their genetic samples removed from the NIH’s database with relative ease, normally via an email request.
He said that while there were often legitimate and valid reasons for having them deleted, there was no evidence of any in the case of the Wuhan samples.
‘The current study suggests… the trusting structures of science have been abused to obscure sequences relevant to the early spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan,’ he wrote.
However, he defended staff at the NIH’s Sequence Read Archive, explaining that they have to manage more than 13million samples, ‘making it infeasible for its staff to validate the rationale for all requests’.
The virologist was able to partially recover 13 of the samples using Google Cloud and then sequence the viruses.
He noted several genetic differences between the strains in the deleted samples and the virus that eventually spread around the world.
In a tweet this morning, Boris Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings said Professor Bloom’s find pointed further ‘towards’ the ‘lab leak’ theory
The latest cover-up comes amid mounting suspicion that the virus may have accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (pictured)
In a Twitter thread detailing his findings today, Professor Bloom said: ‘Although events that led to emergence of #SARSCoV2 in Wuhan are unclear (zoonosis vs lab accident), everyone agrees deep ancestors are coronaviruses from bats.
‘Therefore, we’d expect the first #SARSCoV2 sequences would be more similar to bat coronaviruses, and as #SARSCoV2 continued to evolve it would become more divergent from these ancestors. But that is *not* the case!
‘Instead, early Huanan Seafood Market #SARSCoV2 viruses are more different from bat coronaviruses than #SARSCoV2 viruses collected later in China and even other countries.’
British experts commenting on the study said it confirmed long-held suspicions that Covid was spreading before December 2019.
They also warned that it highlighted the flaws in the World Health Organization’s investigation into Covid’s origins, which is being carefully supervised by China.
Professor Lawrence Young, a molecular biologist at the University of Warwick, told MailOnline: ‘The study further cements the fact the virus was circulating in Wuhan before the outbreak in December.
‘It highlights and reinforces the inadequacy of the original WHO investigation, which was compromised by not being able to access data.
‘This just shows how important it is to understand the early spread of the virus and any future investigation really does need to look seriously at the whole issue.
‘It’s particularly worrying that crucial data was uploaded and then deleted – it’s odd behaviour.’
Asked about what the findings reveal about the origins of the virus, Professor Young said: ‘It doesn’t tell you where the virus came from.’
But he added that it ‘raises suspicions’ and will fuel the the theory that it might have emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which many have suggested.
He added: ‘It [the study] certainly suggests the Covid virus or a very close precursor virus [a less mutated version] was circulating before it started to take off.
‘It could’ve jumped to humans much earlier than the consensus thinking, perhaps even months before.’
The study was shared by former No10 aide Mr Cummings today who said evidence was moving ‘towards’ the China lab leak theory. However, he stressed that the idea was still ‘unproven’.
Mr Cummings, responding to another scientist who endorsed Professor Bloom’s research, tweeted: ‘Yuri has uncovered lots of evidence on this, as he says this deletion is *clear evidence of coverup by China*.
‘Seems to me reasonable to update further towards lab leak hypothesis, though obviously this also remains unproven…’
The Prime Minister has said that the government’s central theory is that the virus was ‘zoonotic’ in origin, and jumped to humans from another species.
But Mr Johnson has said that the possibility that it escaped from the viral institute in Wuhan has not been ruled out.
Top scientists and Government officials in the UK and globally had publicly written off the ‘lab leak’ hypothesis as a conspiracy until recently.
But recent developments and revelations about the type of research that went on at the Wuhan lab has led to growing doubts about the virus’ origin.
Sir Patrick Vallance was asked about the likelihood of the lab leak theory at the House of Lords’ Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee.
He said the biggest risk ‘by far’ is natural infection spreading from animals into humans. But he admitted there should be tighter regulations placed on labs carrying out risky viral research.
Daszak is seen at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2020. His close ties to the lab, his fierce rejection of the idea that COVID-19 could have escaped from its walls, and his absolute rejection of the ‘lab leak’ theory have raised eyebrows
Sir Patrick said: ‘The issue in biosecurity in general is that many of these amendments to organisms are actually quite easy these days, it’s not that difficult to do things in labs, so there is a real need to make sure that we understand what’s going on.
‘…So there is I think a rather important need for the world to think about what systems are to keep an eye on this and to make sure that the level four labs are appropriately regulated and looked after.
‘And I think most of them you know about and some of them you don’t know about I suspect, we don’t know. But there is absolutely a need to keep an eye on that.
‘There is a need to understand the risks of things happening… in places that are less well regulated and I think that is a very real area of future concern.
‘Now, it is still the case that the biggest risk by far is natural infection spreading from animals into humans. That remains by far the risk, but the labs of course do need to be looked at in terms of their security.’
US infectious diseases boss Dr Anthony Fauci has faced calls to resign over the scandal after he last year dismissed the theory as nonsense but appeared to be considering it behind closed doors.
And scientists who put their names to a letter denouncing the ‘lab leak’ theory last year have since changed their minds and said a full inquiry is required.
President Joe Biden has ordered a full investigation into the origin of the pandemic virus and demanded scientists work out whether there is truth to the theory.
The head of the World Health Organization insisted just a day earlier that the theory that Covid emerged from a Wuhan lab has not been ruled out – as he said China should help solve the mystery out of ‘respect’ for the dead.
The body’s director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, suggested that Beijing had not cooperated fully as he urged more ‘transparency’ in the continuing investigation.
There has been mounting controversy over how the virus first emerged – whether through animal contact at a ‘wet’ market in Wuhan or leakage from a highly secure research laboratory in the same city as some have suggested.
China says it is not responsible for the pandemic and has dismissed theories about the disease being manmade.
The latest twist in the lab leak theory saga came yesterday when British scientist Peter Daszak had been removed from a commission looking at the origins of the pandemic.
Professor Daszak secretly denounced the lab leak theory while failing to mention his close ties to the same facility.
The scandal-hit scientist’s departure from the UN-backed Lancet commission into the virus’s origins was revealed on its website.
It added a sentence in brackets under his photo and above his biography, saying ‘recused from Commission work on the origins of the pandemic.’
No further information on Daszak’s departure was given – but he has faced conflict of interest claims after his close ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology were revealed last month.
Daszak, 55, president of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, was one of 28 experts from around the world asked to analyze how best to respond to the pandemic.
The panel comprised leading global figures in public health, economics, philanthropy, diplomacy and politics.