In an unusual turn of events, the scientists who recently announced what they said was “compelling” evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic had a ‘natural’ origin rather than being the product of a lab experiment gone awry were banned by GISAID from using the database that contained the genomic information they used for their study – only for the latter to make a U-turn shortly after.
Many scientists have expressed surprise about the ban and the volte face, which appears to have further vitiated public conversations as well as intensified the spotlight on China’s recalcitrance against international investigations on the virus’s origins.
Where did the virus originate?
GISAID is an open-access database that was launched in 2008. It hit international headlines when, in January 2020, just before the pandemic began, researchers in China uploaded the first genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus to its server, giving the international community of virus and vaccine researchers quick and valuable insight into the virus that would change the world.
Soon, however, many scientists turned their attention to how or where the virus originated. Its first cases had been reported from the city of Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, where there was also a wet market where there was both legal and illegal animal trade. Chinese authorities quickly shut the market, against the backdrop of multiple countries – China included – entering punishing lockdowns.
To this day, however, dispositive proof of the virus’s origins remains lacking. Conspiracy theories swirl on the internet and social media platforms, even as there are at least two groups of scientists divided on the issue. Part of the problem is that China has restricted access to genetic and biological data from the pandemic’s early days, related to the virus’s spread – even to a World Health Organization team that visited the country as part of a probe into the origins in 2021.
On March 16, American magazine The Atlantic reported that an international group of researchers had obtained data from the GISAID database uploaded by individuals affiliated with the Chinese Center for Disease Control (CCDC), but which was soon taken down. In this window, they had downloaded the data.
When they analysed it, they reportedly found genetic material belonging to raccoon dogs and to the novel coronavirus but not to humans in one part of the market. This conclusion appeared to favour the zoonotic theory of the virus’s origins over the lab-leak theory. It also contravened a claim by the Chinese team. The latter had collected the data in January 2020 and previously analysed it in a non-peer-reviewed paper in February 2022. That paper had said only infected humans had brought the virus into the market.
How did GISAID react?
But on March 21, GISAID published a statement citing two issues it had with the group’s conduct. The statement said this group had published their “analysis report in direct contravention of the terms they agreed to as a condition to accessing the data, and despite having knowledge that the data generators are undergoing peer-review assessment of their own publication” – i.e. the Chinese group’s paper was undergoing peer-review, a precursor to the paper being published by the journal Nature. Shortly afterwards, some of the researchers who were part of the group reported on Twitter that they could no longer access GISAID, indicating they had been banned.
The database operators also took a bleak view of the international group announcing their findings via a media report and accused it of wanting to scoop the publication of the Chinese team’s paper.
How did scientists react?
The statement has raised a few concerns in the scientific community.
First, members of the international group had told The Atlantic that they had made efforts to collaborate with the Chinese team, whereas the statement indicates that they didn’t. But at 1:58 pm on March 22, one of the members of the international group tweeted that they had shared proof of their attempts to collaborate with the Chinese team and that GISAID had restored their access to the database.
Second, some scientists have opined that GISAID’s action, to ban members of the group from accessing SARS-CoV-2 genome data, amounts to gatekeeping, contradictory to its purpose to facilitate data-sharing. Francois Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute, tweeted one potential explanation: that GISAID had “worked very hard” to gain the trust of CCDC, so having CCDC members continue using GISAID could be more valuable than scientific analyses being reported sooner.
This possibility is reminiscent of a New York Times investigation in 2021 that found the WHO had made secret concessions in an effort to negotiate China’s cooperation. It also leads into the third concern. GISAID’s statement had interpreted the international group’s decision to publicise their findings via the media rather than a scientific paper to be an attempt to scoop the Chinese team’s results.
But one member, Angela Rasmussen, tweeted early on March 22 that the group didn’t intend to have their findings written up as a paper in the interest of “transparency and the ethical imperative to openly share critical findings about pandemic’s origin that has been withheld from public view for at least a year and likely longer.”
Fourth, according to GISAID, the Chinese team uploaded the genomic data to the database and then removed it because they were revising it to share with the peer-reviewers looking over their paper, and after being entreated to collaborate. However, an explanation remains forthcoming as to why the data was uploaded after three years, not sooner.
On March 17, the World Health Organization asked China to answer this question – after both the international group and the Chinese team had made presentations on their findings to the health body.
For now, the debate over the virus’s origins remains open.