Online group digs deeper into coronavirus leak theory

DRASTIC’s work made the world re-evaluate COVID-19 origin

June 06, 2021 09:54 pm | Updated 10:03 pm IST - CHENNAI

Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during the visit by the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 3, 2021

Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during the visit by the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 3, 2021

When it was proposed about a year ago, the theory of a original lab leaked virus was dismissed as a mere conspiracy theory. A year later, that theory is back in the reckoning, teased out of its conspiratorial hues, and summoned into the limelight through a method at the same time, most unconventional in its approaches, and conventional in its due diligence. When United States President Joe Biden ordered a probe into the origin of the SARS-COV-2 virus last week, it was thanks in large measure to circumstantial evidence dug up by a unique group of investigators communicating entirely via Twitter threads.

Calling themselves DRASTIC, Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19, a group of amateurs decided to sniff the lab leak theory to the ground. One of its members, based in India, also fancifully calls himself the ‘The Seeker’, as a definition of what he brought to the motley group of investigators who came together on Twitter.

Probe further, and he reveals a “science background, with a mix of architectural, entrepreneurial, filmmaking and teaching experience.” The others on the team are also apparently engineers and business people. ‘Billy Bostickson’ — yet another pseudonym — was reportedly responsible for steering conversations

The anonymity some of them have harks back the focus on to the most important aspect of DRASTIC — its revelations. For over a year, the team has been inspired to dive deep online to build a body of evidence that would establish that there was enough there at least for a professional investigation into the origins of the virus that has held the world at ransom.

As for The Seeker, in an email interview, he says that he did not consciously go out to get the lab leak angle. “I’d say, curiosity got the best of me. Like most people I once assumed it was a natural zoonosis, but reading some articles and papers last year (Yuri’s Medium piece, Rossana’s researchgate paper, Botao Xiao’s paper, Metzl’s blog, Sirotkin’s blog, Khaled’s Tabletmag article, and the project evidence github page) made me question my assumptions, and I started drifting towards researching the lab origin theory.”

And once he got in, however, it was literally a journey down a rabbit hole, for him. “The more I researched the more I got pulled into researching it further. And meeting DRASTIC people, got me to dedicate myself even more carefully to tracing and reading all primary sources that dealt with Wuhan Institute of Virology and Wuhan CDC,” The Seeker explains.

The evidence that DRASTIC has painstakingly pieced together points to the possible collection of the virus sample from a mineshaft associated with an incident where miners died of a pneumonia like infection, back in 2012. This involved translating several scientific papers from China translated roughly on Google, and using DNA sequences to compare viruses.

“At the broad conceptual level, I see DRASTIC as a collaborative use of Twitter to complete a big jigsaw puzzle,” The Seeker says. It seems all the information was brought together in a Twitter chatroom, and resolved, through chats, sharing, and arguments, finally crystallising into Twitter threads that began to grab the attention of scientists of renown. The amplification of that theory post that took its own form, and a year down the line, DRASTIC had teased the premise out again, this time bolstered with a bunch of documents that got the world thinking again.

“DRASTIC benefited immensely from the participation of scientists. They made a huge contribution to the discourse, and they conveyed the findings in a much better way than we could have otherwise…. it’s heartening to see that our work is being increasingly taken seriously by science and the media.”

An an official origin probe will lead its own investigation into the theory of the leak of the virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the seekers of the truth at DRASTIC do not think their work is done.“Well, I am certainly hopeful that we’ll get to the truth one day. But honestly, at this moment I’m not sure — a proper investigation hasn’t even begun.”

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