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

    08-Jun-2021
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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. (To be contd)