How Amateur Sleuths Broke the Wuhan Lab Story and Embarrassed the Media

How Amateur Sleuths Broke the Wuhan Lab Story and Embarrassed the Media. By 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. …

But in the last week or so, the story has burst into the public discourse. … The mainstream media, in an astonishing about-face, is treating the possibility with deadly seriousness. …

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.

DRASTIC and the Seeker:

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. …

The young Indian man who calls himself The Seeker is in his late-20s, lives somewhere in eastern India … 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 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. … 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. …

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. … 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. …

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. …

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.”

Naively, he thought the media would be interested in the big news. (But how does it help the left, who were focused only on Trump?)

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. Instead, not a single story appeared for weeks. A few stories appeared in the UK, including a feature in the Sunday Times. The U.S. 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. …

All that evidence pointed in one direction only:

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. …

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.

How many are even considering the possibility that the Chinese were looking for a race-specific bioweapon? Or that the release may not have been entirely accidental? Or that the Chinese authorities deliberately infected the world by funneling Wuhan refugees abroad whist telling everyone the pandemic was just the flu.

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.”

Other scientists pressured Bloom to reconsider, but he held his ground, and the wall of silence began to crumble. In May, 17 scientists from Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, and other leading institutions, including Chan, joined Bloom in a letter in Science calling for a thorough investigation of the Wuhan lab.

Another smoking gun emerged in May 2021:

On nearly the same day, The Seeker struck again. Visiting a database hosted by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, he searched for all theses supervised by Shi Zhengli. Boom. Three hits. “I got it on my first try,” he says. “Not sure why no one else thought of this before, but I guess no one was looking.”

If there had been any remaining doubt about the WIV’s pattern of deception, these new theses put it to rest. They indicated that the WIV researchers had never believed a fungus had killed the Mojiang miners, contradicting Shi’s remarks in Scientific American and elsewhere. In fact, WIV researchers had been so concerned about a new SARS-like outbreak that they’d tested the blood of neighboring villagers for other cases. And they had known the genetic sequences for the eight other SARS-like viruses from the mine — which could have helped researchers to understand more about SARS-CoV-2 in the early days — long before the pandemic started, and had kept the information to themselves, until DRASTIC called them out.

Within days of the new revelations and the Science letter, more academics, politicians and even the mainstream media began to take the lab-leak seriously, culminating on May 26 when President Biden ordered U.S. intelligence agencies “to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion.”

China is not cooperating, has hidden and destroyed evidence, and looks as guilty as. But how guilty, and guilty of what precisely? The rest of the world is now realizing it really needs to know. Urgently.