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

    06-Jun-2021
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Rowan Jacobsen
Contd from previous issue
 "We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin," it stated.
We now know, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, that Daszak orchestrated the letter to squelch talk of a lab leak. He drafted it, reached out to fellow scientists to sign it, and worked behind the scenes to make it seem that the letter represented the views of a broad range of scientists.
"This statement will not have the EcoHealth Alliance logo on it and will not be identifiable as coming from any one organization or person," he wrote in his pitch to the co-signatories. Scientists whose work had overlapped with the WIV agreed not to sign it so they could "put it out in a way that doesn't link it back to our collaboration."
At the time, however, there was no hint of Daszak's organizing role.
The letter helped make Daszak a ubiquitous presence in the media, where he called a lab-leak "preposterous," "baseless," and "pure baloney."
He also attacked scientists who published evidence pointing to the lab. Part of the reason the lab theory made no sense, he argued, was because the Wuhan lab wasn't culturing any viruses remotely similar to SARS-CoV-2. (Daszak has not responded to Newsweek's request for comment.)
For a long time, Daszak was astonishingly influential. Few in the media questioned him or pointed out that his career and organization would be deeply damaged if it turned out his work had indirectly played a role in the pandemic. His unwitting accomplice was Donald Trump, who embraced the theory, turning what should have been a scientific question into a political one.
When the Trump administration canceled EcoHealth Alliance contracts that would have spent millions on new virus research, 60 Minutes ran a segment that painted Daszak as a martyr to the right-wing conspiracy machine. For right-thinking people everywhere, it seemed like an easy call: The enemy of my enemy is my friend: thus, the lab-leak theory is bunk.
A Whiff of Censorship
By early 2020, The Seeker was beginning to question that viewpoint. He had begun to interact with people who were poking holes in the conventional wisdom.
One important piece was an extensive Medium post by the Canadian longevity entrepreneur Yuri Deigin that discussed RaTG13, a virus Shi Zhengli had revealed to the world in a February 3 paper in the journal Nature. In that paper, Shi presented the first extensive analysis of SARS-CoV-2, which had seemed to come from nowhere—the virus was unlike any that had been seen before, including the first SARS, which had killed 774 people from 2002 to 2004.
In her paper, however, Shi also introduced RaTG13, a virus that is similar in genetic makeup to SARS-CoV-2, making it the only known close relative at the time.
The paper was vague about where RaTG13 had come from. It didn't say exactly where or when RaTG13 had been found, just that it had previously been detected in a bat in Yunnan Province, in southern China.
The paper aroused Deigin's suspicions. He wondered if SARS-CoV-2 might have emerged through some genetic mixing and matching from a lab working with RaTG13 or related viruses. His post was cogent and comprehensive. The Seeker posted Deigin's theory on Reddit, which promptly suspended his account permanently.
That early whiff of censorship piqued Seeker's curiosity, so he read more of the Twitter group's ideas. "I found a lively group of people eager to debate and explore the topic," he told Newsweek by email.
It was an eclectic group. There were entrepreneurs, engineers, and a microbiologist from the University of Innsbruck named Rossana Segreto.
None of them had known each other in advance; they gravitated to the forum after independently concluding that the conventional wisdom of the origins of COVID-19 didn't make sense.
Conversations were kept on track by a wisecracking coordinator living somewhere in Asia who went by the pseudonym Billy Bostickson, and whose Twitter icon was a cartoon of a beat-up lab monkey.
The Seeker fit right in. "They helped me catch up on the debate, and I started to educate myself," he says. "Before I knew it, I got hooked into the mystery." He was driven in part by curiosity, but also by a growing sense of civic duty. "COVID has taken the lives of countless people and devastated so many others. But it has also left so many clues that haven't been followed up. Humanity deserves answers."
The Seeker and the rest of the group became increasingly convinced that RaTG13 might hold the key to some of those answers.
In a crackling thread, half a dozen participants hashed out its mysteries, combing the internet and the WIV's previous papers for clues.
If there is a moment when the DRASTIC team coalesced into something more than its disparate parts, it would be this thread.
In real time, for all the world to see, they worked through the data, tested various hypotheses, corrected each other, and scored some direct hits.
The key facts quickly came together. The genetic sequence for RaTG13 perfectly matched a small piece of genetic code posted as part of a paper written by Shi Zhengli years earlier, but never mentioned again.

(To be cotnd)