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

    07-Jun-2021
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Rowan Jacobsen
Contd from previous issue
The code came from a virus the WIV had found in a Yunnan bat. Connecting key details in the two papers with old news stories, the DRASTIC team determined that RaTG13 had come from a mineshaft in Mojiang County, in Yunnan Province, where six men shoveling bat guano in 2012 had developed pneumonia. Three of them died. DRASTIC wondered if that event marked the first cases of human beings being infected with a precursor of SARS-CoV-2—perhaps RaTG13 or something like it.
In a profile in Scientific American, Shi Zhengli acknowledged working in a mineshaft in Mojiang County where miners had died. But she avoided connecting it to RaTG13 (an omission she had made in her scientific papers as well), claiming that a fungus in the cave had killed the miners.
That explanation didn't sit well with the DRASTIC group. They suspected a SARS-like virus, not a fungus, had killed the miners and that, for whatever reason, the WIV was trying to hide that fact. It was a hunch, and they had no way of proving it.
At this point, The Seeker revealed his research powers to the group. In his online explorations, he'd recently discovered a massive Chinese database of academic journals and theses called CNKI. Now he wondered if somewhere in its vast circuitry might be information on the sickened miners.
Working through the night at his bedside table on phone and laptop, fueled by chai and using Chinese characters with the help of Google Translate, he plugged in "Mojiang"—the county where the mine was located—in combination with every other word he could think of that might be relevant, instantly translating each new flush of results back to English. "Mojiang + pneumonia"; "Mojiang + WIV"; "Mojiang + bats"; "Mojiang + SARS." Each search brought back thousands of results and half a dozen different databases for journals, books, newspapers, master's theses, doctoral dissertations. He combed through these results, night after night, but never found anything useful. When he ran out of energy, he broke for arcade games and more chai.
He was on the verge of calling it quits, he says, when he struck gold: a 60-page master's thesis written by a student at Kunming Medical University in 2013 titled "The Analysis of 6 Patients with Severe Pneumonia Caused by Unknown Viruses." In exhaustive detail, it described the conditions and step-by-step treatment of the miners. It named the suspected culprit: "Caused by SARS-like [coronavirus] from the Chinese horseshoe bat or other bats."
The Seeker dropped the link, without fanfare, on May 18, 2020, then followed up with a second thesis from a PhD student at the Chinese CDC confirming much of the information in the first. Four of the miners had tested positive for antibodies from a SARS-like infection. And the WIV had been looped in to test samples from them all. (Shortly after The Seeker posted the theses, China changed the access controls on CNKI so no one could do such a search again.)
If a SARS-like virus had emerged in 2012, had been covered up, and the WIV had been sending people back to the mine to forage for more samples and bringing them back to Wuhan, that should have been front-page news the next day. (To be contd)
How amateur sleuths broke the Wuhan Lab story and embarrassed the media
Rowan Jacobsen
Contd from previous issue
Instead, not a single story appeared for weeks. A few stories appeared in the UK, including a feature in the Sunday Times. The US media took a pass.
"I was definitely expecting it to blow up all over the news," The Seeker admits. "The general lack of interest in facts or reason surprised me. And it still perplexes me that even with all their resources, the corporate investigative media is lagging terribly."
Within days, DRASTIC managed to locate the coordinates of the mysterious Mojiang mine, but it would not catch the attention of the media until late 2020, when a race to get there began. The first attempt was by the BBC's John Sudworth, who found his path blocked by trucks and guards. (Sudworth would soon be forced to leave China because of his reporting.) The AP tried around the same time, with no better luck. Later, teams from NBC, CBS, Today, and other outlets also found their way blocked by trucks, trees, and angry men. Some were told that it was dangerous to proceed because of wild elephants. Eventually, a Wall Street Journal reporter reached the entrance to the mine by mountain bike—only to be detained for five hours of questioning. The mine's secrets remain.
A Huge Sudoku Puzzle
Although the Moijang mine revelation in May 2020 got nowhere in the media, it attracted new members to DRASTIC, which was able to expand its intelligence gathering to cover everything from viral genetics to biolab safety protocols. On May 21, 2020, Billy Bostickson dubbed the group "DRASTIC Research." He also began organizing the team into subgroups to focus on different aspects of the case. Soon, they were regularly posting discoveries that made lab involvement seem more likely.
A key team member was Francisco de Asis de Ribera, a Madrid data scientist who excels at mining big data sets. Over the years, the WIV had published a huge amount of information about its virus-hunting projects in different outlets and formats. Ribera began assembling it all into "a huge Sudoku puzzle," searching for places where he could fill in some of the blanks, slowly assembling a comprehensive map of the WIV's entire virus program. He and The Seeker made a formidable team, The Seeker unearthing new pieces of the puzzle and Ribera fitting them into place. ("I have always seen myself and Francisco as playing Detective McNulty and Detective Freamon from The Wire," The Seeker joked to Newsweek in one message.)
Ribera was responsible for solving another piece of the RaTG13 puzzle. Had the WIV been actively working on RaTG13 during the seven years since they discovered it ? Peter Daszak said no: they had never used the virus because it wasn't similar enough to the original SARS. "We thought it's interesting, but not high-risk," he told Wired. "So we didn't do anything about it and put it in the freezer."
Ribera disproved that account. When a new science paper on genetics is published, the authors must upload the accompanying genetic sequences to an international database. By examining some metadata tags that had been accidentally uploaded by the WIV along with its genetic sequences for RaTG13, Ribera discovered that scientists at the lab had indeed been actively studying the virus in 2017 and 2018—they hadn't stuck it in a freezer and forgotten about it, after all.
In fact, the WIV had been intensely interested in RaTG13 and everything else that had come from the Mojiang mineshaft. From his giant Sudoku puzzle, Ribera determined that they made at least seven different trips to the mine, over many years, collecting thousands of samples. Ribera's guess is that their technology had not been good enough in 2012 and 2013 to find the virus that had killed the miners, so they kept going back as the techniques improved.
He also made a bold prediction. Cross-referencing snippets of information from multiple sources, Ribera guessed, in a Twitter thread dated August 1, 2020, that a cluster of eight SARS-related viruses mentioned briefly in an obscure section of one WIV paper had actually also come from the Mojiang mine. In other words, they hadn't found one relative of SARS-CoV-2 in that mineshaft; they'd found nine. In November 2020, Shi Zhengli confirmed many of DRASTIC's suspicions about the Mojiang cave in an addendum to her original paper on RaTG13 and in a talk in February 2021.
Of course, the only reason Ribera has had to perform such Sherlockian feats is because the WIV has not shared the data investigators have asked for. The WIV maintained a database on its website with all the data on the viruses in its collection, including the many unpublished ones, but that page on its website has been empty for some time. When asked about the missing database in January 2021, Shi Zhengli explained that it had been taken offline during the pandemic because the WIV web server had become the focus of online attacks. But once again, DRASTIC poked holes in this explanation: the database was taken down on September 12, 2019, shortly before the start of the pandemic, and well before the WIV would have become a target.
Other databases yielded other clues. In the WIV's grant applications and awards, The Seeker found detailed descriptions of the Institute's research plans, and they were damning: Projects were underway to test the infectivity of novel SARS-like viruses they'd discovered in human cells and in lab animals, to see how they might mutate as they crossed species, and to genetically recombine pieces of different viruses—all being done at woefully inadequate biosecurity levels. All the elements for a disaster were on hand.
Of course, that is not proof that a disaster took place. Barring unlikely eyewitness testimony, we may never have that. But all the evidence DRASTIC has produced points in the same direction: The Wuhan Institute of Virology had spent years collecting dangerous coronaviruses, some of which it has never revealed to the world. It was actively testing these viruses to determine their ability to infect people, as well as what mutations might be necessary to enhance that ability—likely with the ultimate goal of producing a vaccine that would protect against all of them. And the ongoing effort to cover this up implies that something may have gone wrong.
Going Mainstream
By early 2021, DRASTIC had produced so much information that no one could keep up, not even its own researchers, so they launched their own website as a repository. The site contains enough science papers, Twitter threads, translations of Chinese documents and links to articles to keep a curious gumshoe busy for months.
Increasingly, those gumshoes are professional journalists and scientists. "Rossana Segreto and Yuri Deigin are my heroes," says the writer Nicholson Baker, who published an influential feature on the lab-leak theory in New York magazine. "They combed through the research and made inspired connections and uncovered crucial pieces of the story that needed to be told. Same goes for Mona Rahalkar and Billy Bostickson. Crowd-sourced scientific muckraking."
The UK journalist Ian Birrell concurs. "There is no doubt their collective efforts...have been crucial in challenging both China and the scientific establishment to ensure the lab leak theory is properly investigated," he wrote in Unherd. "It has been fascinating to see, in the course of my investigations over the past year, how this group of activists—in tandem with a few brave scientists—has forced the lab leak hypothesis from the shadows."
One of those scientists was Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard who recognized the value of the information DRASTIC was producing and began to interpret it for scientists and nonscientists alike in crisp explainers on Twitter that made her a star science communicator. Chan acknowledged the group's accomplishments in a long thread on Twitter. "Without the work done by the DRASTIC team, I don't really know where we would be today with the origins of covid-19," she wrote, adding, "The work of these outsiders...has had a measurable impact on the scientific discourse."
That scientific discourse jumped tracks on January 6, 2021, when the University of Washington virologist Jesse Bloom, one of the country's most respected COVID-19 researchers, became the first major scientific figure to publicly legitimize DRASTIC's contributions. "Yes, I follow the work," he tweeted, sending tremors through the scientific establishment. "I don't agree [with] all of it, but some parts seem important & correct." Bloom singled out Mona Rahalkar's paper on the Mojiang mine, then added that in the early days of the pandemic, "I thought lab escape very unlikely. Based on subsequent work, I now say quite plausible."
Newsweek