How amateur sleuths broke the Wuhan Lab story and embarrassed the media

    05-Jun-2021
|
Rowan Jacobsen
For most of last year, the idea that the coronavirus pandemic could have been triggered by a laboratory accident in Wuhan, China, was largely dismissed as a racist conspiracy theory of the alt-right. The Washington Post in early 2020 accused Senator Tom Cotton of "fanning the embers of a conspiracy theory that has been repeatedly debunked by experts." CNN jumped in with "How to debunk coronavirus conspiracy theories and misinformation from friends and family." Most other mainstream outlets, from The New York Times ("fringe theory") to NPR ("Scientists debunk lab accident theory"), were equally dismissive. (Newsweek was an exception, reporting in April 2020 that the WIV was involved in gain-of-function research and might have been the site of a lab leak; Mother Jones, Business Insider, the NY Post and FOX News were also exceptions.) But in the last week or so, the story has burst into the public discourse. President Joe Biden has demanded an investigation by US intelligence. And the mainstream media, in an astonishing about-face, is treating the possibility with deadly seriousness.
The reason for the sudden shift in attitudes is clear : over the weeks and months of the pandemic, the pileup of circumstantial evidence pointing to the Wuhan lab kept growing—until it became too substantial to ignore.
The people responsible for uncovering this evidence are not journalists or spies or scientists. They are a group of amateur sleuths, with few resources except curiosity and a willingness to spend days combing the internet for clues. Throughout the pandemic, about two dozen or so correspondents, many anonymous, working independently from many different countries, have uncovered obscure documents, pieced together the information, and explained it all in long threads on Twitter—in a kind of open-source, collective brainstorming session that was part forensic science, part citizen journalism, and entirely new. They call themselves DRASTIC, for Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19.
For a long time, DRASTIC's discoveries stayed confined to the strange world of Twitter, known only to a few nerdy followers. The sleuths ran into a fair number of dead ends, got into the occasional spat with scientists who disagreed with their interpretations, and produced a firehose of reporting. Gradually, the quality of their research and the rigor of their thinking drew a larger following, including many professional scientists and journalists.
Thanks to DRASTIC, we now know that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had an extensive collection of coronaviruses gathered over many years of foraging in the bat caves, and that many of them—including the closest known relative to the pandemic virus, SARS-CoV-2—came from a mineshaft where three men died from a suspected SARS-like disease in 2012. We know that the WIV was actively working with these viruses, using inadequate safety protocols, in ways that could have triggered the pandemic, and that the lab and Chinese authorities have gone to great lengths to conceal these activities. We know that the first cases appeared weeks before the outbreak at the Huanan wet market that was once thought to be ground zero.
None of this proves that the pandemic started in the Wuhan lab, of course: it's entirely possible that it did not. But the evidence assembled by DRASTIC amounts to what prosecutors call probable cause—a strong, evidence-based case for a full investigation. It's not clear that the best efforts of the US and other Nations to investigate the lab-leak hypothesis will ever turn up unequivocal evidence one way or another, at least without the full cooperation of China, which is unlikely.
But if they do, this small, motley group of amateur sleuths will have broken what may be the biggest story of the 21st century.
This is how they did it.
Strange coincidences
The young Indian man who calls himself The Seeker is in his late-20s, lives somewhere in eastern India, and uses a piece of tribal art from his home region of West Bengal for his Twitter logo, he said via email. His career has been a melange of architecture, painting, and filmmaking—a khichdi, his mother and sister call it, meaning a stew of disparate ingredients that adds up to something surprising and delightful. A voracious autodidact, he'd become an expert at searching the back alleys of the web, far beyond the well-lit places patrolled by Google, for information on whatever topic interested him. He often posted on Reddit, where he had accumulated a massive 750,000 karma points. That's all The Seeker revealed to Newsweek through email and messaging; he maintains his anonymity.
Like most people following the news back when the pandemic started, The Seeker initially believed that the virus had jumped from wild animals to humans at a Wuhan wet market. (On March 27 he tweeted, "Nobody wants to see their parents or grandma and grandpa die over a stupid virus from an exotic animal market.") He believed this because that's what the mainstream press told him, and the mainstream press believed it because that is what a handful of scientists had said.
Chief among these scientists was a biologist named Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit research group that ran a large international program to survey natural pathogens with the potential to cause a pandemic. Daszak had been collaborating for years with Shi Zhengli, the Director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and a renowned bat virologist. Daszak co-authored nearly a dozen papers with Shi and funneled at least $600,000 of US Government grants her way.
When the pandemic happened to break out on the doorstep of the lab with the largest collection of coronaviruses in the world, fueling speculation that the WIV might be involved, Daszak and 26 other scientists signed a letter that appeared in The Lancet on February 19, 2020. (To be contd)