Chinese state lab mapped SARS-CoV-2 and immediately told the U.S. govt: WSJ report
A recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Chinese Lab Mapped Deadly Coronavirus Two Weeks Before Beijing Told the World, Documents Show” brings into questions of what China knew in the pandemic’s crucial early days, saying that China withheld publication of a sequence "nearly identical" to the SARS-CoV-2 gene sequence in December 2019, and delayed by two weeks the release of information about the causes of COVID-19. I want to share my angles on what some of the facts in it implicate, and it might be different from the author's angle.
1. A different angle
The Wall Street Journal article says that "a Chinese researcher in Beijing uploaded a nearly complete sequence of the virus’s structure to a U.S. government-run database on Dec. 28, 2019." and "China only shared the virus’s sequence with the World Health Organization on Jan. 11, 2020, according to U.S. government timelines of the pandemic." It noted that "The sequence that Ren provided in December 2019 was never published and was deleted from the database on Jan. 16, 2020, after NIH, following its protocols, asked her for more technical details and she didn’t respond, Egorin wrote. It is unclear why Ren didn’t respond."
The article subsequently cites a statement from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.), saying that the discovery that a researcher in the state-affiliated Chinese lab had isolated and mapped the virus well before Beijing revealed publicly that it had done so shows the U.S. "cannot trust any of the so-called 'facts' or data provided by the CCP and calls into serious question the legitimacy of any scientific theories based on such information.” And it quoted Richard Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University, saying that having the virus information two weeks earlier “would have helped in the early stages of the outbreak,” particularly with putting a more effective testing regimen in place.
According to a report by Caixin, a respected business magazine that's also the world’s largest digital news subscription business outside the UK and the U.S., Chinese hospitals had obtained information related to the virus sequence by Dec. 27. On Dec. 28, 任丽丽 Ren Lili, a researcher "in the state-affiliated Chinese lab" as acknowledged by the WSJ report, uploaded this data to a United States government-run database. Whatever the reason for Ren's delay in responding to the database's email asking for further technical details, the near-instinct, swift sharing demonstrated openness and professionalism from early on.
2. Neither Dr. Lili Ren nor the Chinese government deleted the data Ren uploaded
Although the article does not specify who deleted the data uploaded by Ren, its overall discussion about the Chinese government concealing or delaying information related to the COVID-19 virus - and its specific phrasing, "was deleted" - inevitably gives the impression that either Ren or the Chinese government intentionally deleted the data.
According to the letter written from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month to initiate the investigation, Ren's submission was actually deleted by NCBI following necessary protocols and a resubmission request was issued.
Letter written from HHS to the House Energy and Commerce Committee
Ren did not respond with additional information before the deadline, but she did resubmit a sequence to Genbank in February, 2020 and it is still accessible on NCBI’s official website. It's worth to note that the definition of the virus was BetaCoV/Wuhan/IPBCAMS-WH-01/2019, as highlighted in the screenshot below:
Ren's resubmission of the sequence to GenBank in February, 2020
3. The discovery of this sequence by Ren cannot be considered as the creation of a new timeline related to COVID-19, because there were already reports about this sequence in early 2020.
The WSJ article describes "the documents" acquired by Republican Congresspeople from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services as "describing a new timeline."
However, in the first days of 2020, the sequencing results were known throughout Wuhan’s local hospitals and public health officials, and were widely discussed on various open platforms.
Caixin published an exclusive in February 2020, tracing back to the first genetic sequencings of COVID-19 cases. It is said that on Dec. 24, a bronchoalveolar lavage specimen collected from the first identified patient, a 65-year-old deliveryman at Huanan market, was sent to 微远基因 [Vision Medicals], a private sequencing company. The first result indicating a SARS-related coronavirus was telephoned to Wuhan Central Hospital on Dec. 27.
The corroboration appeared in a public blog by another researcher in late January 2020. The writer, pseudonym "小山狗 [Little dog]", posted a day-by-day report describing her team's work on the same genome sequence. The blog has been read by millions before disappearing.
According to "小山狗 [Little dog]", the data was also shared with the Institute of Pathogen Biology of Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences on Dec. 27. As introduced above, Ren is a virologist at the institute. According to the WSJ article, Ren submitted a sequence "nearly identical" to the SARS-CoV-2 gene sequence to Genbank on Dec. 28.
In the screenshot provided by "小山狗 [Little dog]" in her blog, the virus name which her team found was BetaCoV/Wuhan/IPBCAMS-WH-01/2019, the same one as I found in Ren's resubmission document. The collection date is Dec. 24, which is aligned with the timeline reported by Caixin.
Not only in China, but a professor in the United States has also published an article including a timeline of virus samples related to this case. It was about a 65-year-old former deliveryman at Huanan market, who virus sample was collected on Dec. 24, and the timeline is detailed in the article on Science by Michael Worobey, Professor and Head of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona. The article was published in 2021.
Moreover, as noted by Alex Crits-Christoph, Ren published a paper titled "Identification of a novel coronavirus causing severe pneumonia in human: a descriptive study" on Chinese Medical Journal in January 2020, explaining in detail this exact sequence and the origins of the disease.
Discussions surrounding the pandemic, when grounded in factual rigor, contribute significantly to a broader understanding of the events as they unfolded. Conversely, a lack of precision in these discussions can lead to misinterpretations who may not have the time to delve into the intricate details of these documents.
The above is the result of several days' digging and I welcome any corrections from those more knowledgeable in the field.