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Story of how ‘amateur sleuths’ forced world to consider Wuhan lab leak theory about Covid

Group called DRASTIC spends months scouring internet to discover how Wuhan lab had been studying coronaviruses, including one that is genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2.

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New Delhi: A disparate group by the name Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19 or DRASTIC, has garnered mainstream recognition for bringing to light evidence that supports the theory that Covid-19 may have originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China.

A Newsweek report tracked the findings of the group, detailing how these “amateur sleuths” pieced together information available in the public domain to build a scientific argument for the lab leak theory.

“Thanks to DRASTIC, we now know that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had an extensive collection of coronaviruses gathered over many years of foraging in the bat caves, and that many of them — including the closest known relative to the pandemic virus, SARS-CoV-2 — came from a mineshaft where three men died from a suspected SARS-like disease in 2012,” the Newsweek report said.

Describing DRASTIC, the report added: “They are a group of amateur sleuths, with few resources except curiosity and a willingness to spend days combing the internet for clues. 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.”

DRASTIC discovered that the WIV was actively working with the viruses uncovered in the bat cave, “using inadequate safety protocols, in ways that could have triggered the pandemic, and that the lab and Chinese authorities have gone to great lengths to conceal these activities”. The first cases of Covid-19, it turns out, had appeared “weeks before the outbreak at the Huanan wet market that was once thought to be ground zero”.

Also read: Before Wuhan row, how US-China created SARS-like virus in 2015 to show its pandemic potential

How DRASTIC measures were taken

The website for DRASTIC lists 24 “Twitter detectives”, but also includes “China experts and scientists” who are working anonymously to ensure their “privacy and security”.

The Newsweek report highlighted one of the members it corresponded with, an Indian in his late-20s, residing in the eastern part of the country and working under the moniker ‘The Seeker’.

The team combed through thousands of documents and Chinese scientific papers to find that researchers had discovered a family of SARS viruses in a mineshaft in Mojiang village in Yunnan province in 2012.

Through their continued research, DRASTIC figured that six miners had been infected with a virus called RaTG13, which has a similar genetic make as the SARS virus. Three of the miners later died.

The key link among the many pieces of evidence DRASTIC uncovered is bat virologist Shi Zhengli, who is also the director of WIV. The group tracked scientific papers Shi published and comments she made to the media in 2020 to claim the 2012 virus discovered in the mine is likely the precursor to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that triggered the Covid-19 pandemic.

Also read: What scientists now say on Covid origin in Wuhan lab and what they dismissed prematurely

The Seeker’s quest

Information about the miners was hard to come by. However, The Seeker, “a voracious autodidact”, through his exhaustive research tracked down a 2013 Master’s thesis on the prognosis and treatment given to the miners. This research named the suspected culprit — “caused by SARS-like [coronavirus] from the Chinese horseshoe bat or other bats”.

DRASTIC also went on to find documents that show WIV was extensively studying the batch of coronaviruses it had discovered in the Mojiang mine in the Wuhan lab, contrary to their claims.

While the Newsweek report says the body of evidence does not conclusively prove that Covid-19 leaked from WIV, it has forced the theory back into mainstream discourse, and with a greater emphasis on a more robust investigation.

Also read: We may never know origin of Covid, China must help find answer, says Fauci

WIV’s bank of coronaviruses

DRASTIC’s investigations also discovered that WIV had built a repository of “dangerous coronaviruses” over the years, possibly with the ultimate goal of producing a vaccine. However, it never shared details with the global scientific community, information that could have helped identify the outbreak much sooner.

“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,” the Newsweek reported.

The WIV, which hosted a database of the viruses it was studying on its website, had taken down the web page as early as September 2019, well before the rest of the world was introduced to the disease through the Huanan wet market in December that year.

DRASTIC also uncovered how an American biologist, Peter Daszak, lobbied early on in the pandemic to discredit the WIV lab leak theory. Daszak had been collaborating with Dr Shi for years and had “funnelled at least $600,000 of U.S. government grants her way”.

(Edited by Manasa Mohan)

Also read: Lab leak is the biggest suspect in 1977 flu pandemic. But it took 3 decades to gain currency


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