“These additional data will play a big role in that effort,” Dr. Worobey said.
It’s not clear why this valuable information went missing in the first place. Scientists can request that files be deleted by sending an email to the managers of the Sequence Read Archive. The National Library of Medicine, which manages the archive, said that the 13 sequences were removed last summer.
“These SARS-CoV-2 sequences were submitted for posting in SRA in March 2020 and subsequently requested to be withdrawn by the submitting investigator in June 2020,” said Renata Myles, a spokeswoman for the National Institutes of Health.
She said that the investigator, whom she did not name, told the archive managers that the sequences were being updated and would be added to a different database. But Dr. Bloom has searched every database he knows of, and has yet to find them. “Obviously I can’t rule out that the sequences are on some other database or web page somewhere, but I have not been able to find them any of the obvious places I’ve looked,” he said.
Three of the co-authors of the 2020 testing study that produced the 13 sequences did not immediately respond to emails inquiring about Dr. Bloom’s finding. That study did not give contact information for another co-author, Dr. Fu, who was also named on the spreadsheet from the other study.
Some scientists are skeptical that there is anything sinister behind the removal of the sequences. “I don’t really understand how this points to a cover-up,” said Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah.
Dr. Goldstein noted that the testing paper listed the individual mutations the Wuhan researchers found in their tests. Although the full sequences are no longer in the archive, the key information has been public for over a year, he said. It was just tucked away in a format that is hard for researchers to find.
“We all missed this relatively obscure paper,” Dr. Goldstein said.
“You can’t really say why they were removed,” Dr. Bloom acknowledged in an interview. “You can say that the practical consequence of removing them was that people didn’t notice they existed.” He also noted that the Chinese government ordered the destruction of a number of early samples of the virus and barred the publication of papers on the coronavirus without its approval.