Scientists who are investigating the origins of the COVID-19 virus recently discovered that the genetic sequences of the disease from last year's early cases in Wuhan mysteriously disappeared from an online scientific database.
One Seattle researcher rummaged through files stored on Google Cloud and allegedly recovered 13 of the original sequences. The finding provides crucial new information for determining when and how the virus was able to transfer from a bat or another animal to human beings.
The analysis, which was released on Tuesday, supported the idea that different coronaviruses were spreading across Wuhan before the initial outbreaks related to animal and seafood markets in December 2019 emerged. While U.S. President Joe Biden's administration continues its investigations on the virus' origins, the new findings neither support nor discredit the lab leak theory.
Early COVID-19 Sequences
However, the analysis does put into light the alleged fact that Chinese officials deleted the sequences and questioned why they would do so. Scientists believe the finding could provide more information and that there could be more to discover on the internet.
The discovery of the deleted sequences is a major finding which greatly advances the effort to understand the origins of the COVID-19 virus, said Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, per The New York Times.
It is possible that Chinese scientists deleted the sequences to hide their existence, remarked Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Bloom and Worobey are among a group of outspoken scientists who have previously urged investigations into the pandemic.
The World Health Organization (WHO) heavily relied on sequences of the coronavirus during the early stages of the pandemic. Bloom later researched the information regarding virus sequences submitted to the Sequence Read Archive (SRA) before March 31, 2020. He later found a study led by Ming Wang of Wuhan University's Renmin Hospital.
The study was posted as a preprint on March 6 on medRxiv and was published on June 24 in Small, a journal that focused on materials and chemistry. The paper included some of the earliest cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan and the viruses' specific mutations but was still incomplete.
Continued research led Bloom to find SRA backups of information on Google Cloud. Sleuthing around the storage, he was led to the discovery of some of the earliest data submissions of Wang's team. Due to the lack of three mutations from the early sequences that Bloom found, he concluded the viruses Wang's team discovered were most likely progenitors, Science Mag reported.
The newly discovered sequences were three steps more similar to coronaviruses found in bats than the ones found in the Huanan fish market, Bloom said. The discovery suggested the original virus was spreading in Wuhan before the first reported cases at the seafood market, he added.
Bloom concluded that his study had several limitations, stating sequences he found were only partial and provided no information on when they were obtained or where they were collected from. Determining the time and place is vital in tracking the origin of the COVID-19 virus, Live Science reported.