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

    09-Jun-2021
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Rowan Jacobsen
Contd from previous issue
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 The WIV maintained a database on its website with all the data on the viruses in its collection, including the many unpublished ones, but that page on its website has been empty for some time.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