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. The Washington Post in early 2020 accused Senator Tom Cotton of “fanning the embers of a conspiracy theory that has been repeatedly debunked by experts.” CNN jumped in with “How to debunk coronavirus conspiracy theories and misinformation from friends and family.” Most other mainstream outlets, from The New York Times (“fringe theory”) to NPR (“Scientists debunk lab accident theory”), were equally dismissive. (Newsweek and a few other media outlets were exceptions.)
Recently, however, the story has burst into the public discourse. President Joe Biden has demanded an investigation by U.S. intelligence. And the mainstream media, in an astonishing about-face, is treating the possibility with deadly seriousness.
The reason for the sudden shift in attitudes is clear: Over the weeks and months of the pandemic, the pileup of circumstantial evidence pointing to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) kept growing— until it became too substantial to ignore.
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. 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.
One of the sleuths, a young Indian man who calls himself “The Seeker,” initially believed that the virus had jumped from wild animals to humans at a Wuhan wet market, because that’s what the mainstream press told him. By early 2020, he was beginning to question that viewpoint. He had begun to interact with people who were poking holes in the conventional wisdom. “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.”
One important piece was an extensive Medium post by the Canadian longevity entrepreneur Yuri Deigin that discussed RaTG13, a virus Shi Zhengli, director of the WIV, had revealed to the world in a February 3 paper in the journal Nature. In that paper, Shi presented the first extensive analysis of SARS-CoV-2, which had seemed to come from nowhere—the virus was unlike any that had been seen before, including the first SARS, which had killed 774 people from 2002 to 2004. In her paper, however, Shi also introduced RaTG13, a virus that is similar in genetic makeup to SARS-CoV-2, making it the only known close relative at the time.
The paper was vague about where RaTG13 had come from. It didn’t say exactly where or when RaTG13 had been found, just that it had previously been detected in a bat in Yunnan Province, in southern China.
The paper aroused Deigin’s suspicions. He wondered if SARS-CoV-2 might have emerged through some genetic mixing and matching from a lab working with RaTG13 or related viruses. His post was cogent and comprehensive. The Seeker posted Deigin’s theory on Reddit, which promptly suspended his account permanently.
That early whiff of censorship piqued The 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.
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