How the coronavirus origin story is being rewritten by a guerrilla Twitter group
The Seeker poured a strong cup of chai and lit a cigarette. He was onto something.
Alternating between a smartphone and a laptop, the former science teacher from the northeast Indian city of Bhubaneswar punched keywords into the search bar of CNKI, one of China's foremost databases of scientific papers.
Coronavirus, SARS, horseshoe bat, Yunnan.
It was May 18, 2020. At the time, the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, had infected fewer than 5 million people worldwide. Scientists were still attempting to unravel many of its mysteries. Chief among them was where, exactly, the virus had come from. The Seeker, too, was hooked on that mystery.
After a lot of trial and error, the Seeker stumbled upon exactly what he was looking for: a master's thesis written by a Chinese doctor. The document contained an account of six cases of "severe pneumonia caused by unknown viruses" in workers who had been cleaning an abandoned copper mine in Yunnan, China, in 2012. The patients' symptoms seemed eerily similar to those of COVID-19. Three of the patients, it said, died from the mystery illness.
The Yunnan mine and its resident bats, the Seeker knew, had been sampled by researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. He'd uncovered a missing puzzle piece: an association between the closest known relative of the coronavirus and research conducted at the institute in Wuhan, China.
"Finding it, at that moment, felt big," the Seeker, says, "like a homicide detective solving a cold case."
Minutes after reading the abstract, he posted his find to Twitter, in a long tweet thread tagging members of a loosely defined group known as Drastic, a "Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19." The master's thesis had the potential to rewrite the origin story of the pandemic.
A majority of scientists and experts agree that the coronavirus emerged after jumping from a wild animal to humans somewhere in or around Wuhan, where the first cases appeared in 2019. The pathogen is believed to have lived most of its life inside a bat, before acquiring genetic mutations, potentially through another species, and infecting humans.
But an alternative theory posits that the pandemic began after SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, potentially the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A joint study by the World Health Organization and Chinese scientists in January and February 2021 considered this scenario "extremely unlikely." From the earliest days in the pandemic, it was represented as a conspiracy theory built on misinformation and fear.
But Drastic, and an increasing number of scientists, are convinced it requires further investigation.
In searching for the complete and naked truth surrounding the origins of COVID-19, this motley group of strangers has challenged the prevailing theories of the virus' beginnings by picking apart inconsistencies and trading data in the highly polarized theater of Twitter. This unorthodox approach has seen them branded by scientists and researchers as maniacs, thugs and conspiracy theorists. They've also been accused of racism, and their scientific credentials have been questioned.
On Twitter, where access to world-renowned scientists is just a click away, members of Drastic have targeted virologists and epidemiologists who refuse to engage with the lab leak theory, and they've even falsely accused some of working for the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, some scientists have understandably dismissed Drastic's findings and investigation out of hand.
But over the past year the group's discoveries have proven too important to ignore.
A loose thread
Two months before the Seeker's discovery, Rossana Segreto stumbled upon her own revelation. Segreto, a microbiologist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, had been growing skeptical about the coronavirus origin story from "very early on" in the pandemic. She'd quickly come around to the idea the virus may have leaked from a lab.
In March 2020, Segreto noticed an inconsistency in one of the papers on SARS-CoV-2's potential origins, published in Nature on Feb. 3, 2020. The research was led by Zhengli Shi, a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Shi has a long history working with bat coronaviruses, earning her the infamous title of China's "Bat woman."
Her Nature paper was big news because it described, for the first time, the closest relative of SARS-CoV-2: RaTG13, a bat coronavirus collected by her team. The research showed RaTG13's genetic fingerprint was 96.2% similar to that of SARS-CoV-2. It didn't show where RaTG13 was discovered.
Just two days later, another paper described an even closer match for SARS-CoV-2. It was dubbed "BtCov/4991." The paper showed 4991 had been discovered by Shi's group in an abandoned mineshaft in Yunnan, in 2013, and brought back to the virology institute in Wuhan.
However, unlike RaTG13, 4991 wasn't a whole genetic fingerprint, it was just a leftover fragment of one. Segreto wondered if it matched any other viruses known to science.
She turned to an online tool called BLAST, which functions like a search engine to match genetic fingerprints of discovered viruses. When she ran 4991 through the tool in March 2020, it returned a 100% match with RaTG13.
The 4991 fragment was actually just a small piece of RaTG13. They were the same virus.
The WIV had not documented the name change, which obscured where RaTG13 was originally discovered (an addendum was added to the paper by Shi's team on Nov. 17, 2020, nine months after it was published).
"I was so surprised," Segreto says.
It was a critical moment, made all the more startling when the Seeker discovered the master's thesis (a translation was later provided by Independent Science News). Taking the two pieces together, Drastic was able to link RaTG13 to the mineshaft in Yunnan, 1,000 miles southeast of Wuhan, where workers fell ill in 2012 from a COVID-like disease.
The lack of transparency from the Wuhan Institute of Virology prompted another Drastic member, Monali Rahalkar from India's Agharkar Research Institute, to publish a list of questions surrounding the miners' illnesses in October 2020. Many remain unanswered.
"The researchers at the WIV state that they have not closer virus to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13, and RaTG13 is clearly not the source of SARS-CoV-2 (it's far too distant). To me, these statements ring true because they would have very likely already published the sequence of any such virus if it had existed, particularly a virus that they would then do more work on. As such, the miners story tells us nothing about the emergence of SARS-CoV-2," according to Edward Holmes, a virologist at the University of Sydney.
As for their illness, experts at the Wuhan Institute of Virology retested blood samples from the sick miners, finding there was no evidence they were infected by a coronavirus. Instead, those experts suggest the miners may have suffered from a fungal infection. According to the Seeker's thesis find, which includes the opinion of China's foremost SARS expert, this is simply untrue.
Whether the miners' story can reveal more about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is still to be explored, but the issues around transparency from researchers at the WIV has left a dangling thread Drastic continues to tug.
When Yuri Deigin first heard the lab leak hypothesis in January 2020, he thought it was all "bullshit conspiracy theory." He wanted to smash those conspiracy theories with "cold, hard scientific facts." So he started doing a little digging on some of the laboratories in Wuhan.
"Once I actually started reading up on what kind of research they were doing, I was worried that, you know, this could have been a lab leak," he says.
Deigin, a Russian-born scientist working on developing drugs to combat aging, published an article on Russian blog site Habr and on Facebook about a month before the Seeker found the master's thesis. In it, he questioned whether SARS-CoV-2 could have escaped from a lab. Prominent Russian biologists immediately discredited the work, suggesting he was pushing forward "crazy narratives."
When he posted a version in English on Medium, vocal virologists working on the coronavirus in the West mostly ignored it or disparaged it. One compared it to a racist manifesto. But Drastic took notice.
Deigin began convening with the group via Twitter. It was one of the few platforms where discussions on lab leaks were occurring. Facebook had flagged such pieces as "false information" in February and "it was impossible to post anything on Reddit and not have it taken down," Deigin says. (The COVID-19 subreddit is still removing lab leak content from Drastic members because "the authors are not scientists outright, or not in relevant fields.")
Part of the problem is that the origins story has become entangled in geopolitics and conspiracy. Bad actors have seized upon the lab leak theory for political gain, sometimes attempting to shift the blame for catastrophic failures in managing the pandemic. Instead of remaining a scientific debate, the origin story morphed into a political one. For instance, in March 2020, US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began propagating the idea that SARS-CoV-2 may have leaked from a Wuhan lab. The lab leak became intertwined with Trump, foreign policy and the right. Deigin says Trump weighing in "poisoned" the discussion.
In collaboration with Segreto, Deigin published a piece in open access journal BioEssays on Nov. 17, 2020 stating that "researchers have the responsibility to consider all possible causes for SARS‐CoV‐2 emergence." The piece discusses another loose thread Drastic has investigated for months: the modification and deletion of a 10-year-old database of viruses maintained by Shi's team at the WIV, taken offline in September 2019, allegedly to protect against hacking attempts.
Shi told the BBC that the database contains no new information and that all the work regarding bat coronaviruses found by the Institute has been published. But Deigin, other Drastic members and a growing number of scientists are calling for the database's contents to be made public.
Deigin sees himself as something of an outsider and says investigating the origins of SARS-CoV-2 hasn't threatened his professional life. It's a different story for Segreto. Her family is "not happy" about all the time she dedicates to the theory, she says, and some of her colleagues are concerned it could ruin the image of their university.
But Segreto says she's motivated by trying to prevent the next pandemic. "I hope my daughter will understand me one day," she says.
Spend long enough in the Twitterverse looking into the lab origins debate, and you'll start to see a few familiar profiles. The most prolific appears to be helmed by a one-eyed, cartoon lab monkey: Twitter user @BillyBostickson.
Bostickson, whose profile picture shows the aforementioned monocular primate, says they have been using a pseudonym for 10 years for professional reasons in "a country with vicious state subversion laws." Since February, they've been working 15-hour days, spending a majority of their time neck-deep in SARS-CoV-2 research. "I feel burnt out," they recently tweeted.
Bostickson conceived and named Drastic, was one of the first people to bring members together in early 2020, and often collates the team's findings and outstanding questions in extensive Twitter threads. Before 2020, Bostickson says they hardly knew how to even compose a thread on the site, but the social media network has become invaluable. "Twitter serves as a very intuitive searchable database," they say.
Since early 2020, Drastic has swelled to 28 members. While Bostickson and others have organized the group and built a website, there's no overarching, obvious hierarchy. Members work in subgroups on specific questions related to the origins of SARS-CoV-2 but there are "very few rules," according to Gilles Demaneuf, a New Zealand-based data scientist who is part of the group. "I think the only rule we have is to respect people, and we're not pressing people to tell us who they are," he notes.
About half of the members prefer to remain anonymous, citing safety concerns, fear of losing their jobs and a constant stream of hacking attempts, according to Demaneuf. Drastic is only interested in telling the public enough about themselves to convince people they're "not a bunch of wackos hiding behind the internet," he says.
But working under pseudonyms has allowed for mudslinging and vitriol to fly. "It's nasty because people hide behind anonymity," says Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist from the University of New South Wales and WHO adviser. You don't have to search for very long to run into Drastic members clashing with prominent virologists. Many members have been blocked by those who have vocally supported a natural origin of SARS-CoV-2.
There have been ugly incidents on Twitter, further complicating genuine debate around the origins question.
Segreto, for instance, was falsely accused of attacking Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, though this was denied by her former head of department. Rasmussen has stated Segreto has participated in attacks against her online, calling the conduct hurtful and upsetting.
Holmes, the virologist at the University of Sydney, has collaborated closely with researchers in China and co-authored a highly cited Nature Medicine paper supporting the natural origin theory in March 2020. Bostickson has dubbed him a "Chinese puppet," and others have erroneously suggested that Holmes, with researchers working at the Wuhan Institute of Virology including Shi Zhengli, conspired to keep the origins of the pandemic a secret. Holmes has blocked many Drastic members on Twitter because member's tweets have descended into personal attacks. He vehemently denies Bostickson's baseless claims.
Members of a WHO-China mission to study the origins of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan earlier this year have also come under fire. Much of the venom has been aimed at Peter Daszak, president of nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, a New York nonprofit that has helped fund research into coronaviruses in China. Daszak's close association with the WIV and its staff was perceived as a conflict of interest during the WHO-China study, and he has been a lightning rod for criticism. "Daszak needs to be charged with crimes against humanity," one Drastic member wrote.
The abrasive attacks have, at times, overshadowed the team's work.
"While I admire their tenacity, they are very much on the edge from a scientific perspective," says Nikolai Petrovsky, a vaccine developer at Flinders University in Australia. "They definitely have a role, but more as detectives sifting through the evidence than as scientific commentators."
The trouble with investigating the origins of COVID-19 is often not what is said, but what is unsaid.
Drastic's discoveries don't provide definitive evidence of a lab leak and don't prove any deliberate malfeasance on behalf of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or its collaborators, but they do highlight important holes in the story. At the very least, those holes reveal a problematic lack of transparency, but at worst Drastic members suggest they're indicative of a coverup, potentially implicating researchers in China and abroad.
On the other hand, many virologists point to Wuhan's wet markets as a starting point in the pandemic, but definitive evidence implicating the markets is lacking, too. Especially when it comes to the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, once thought to be pandemic Ground Zero. Eyewitness testimony from Chinese citizens and market authorities state that no live animals were sold there, and the data gathered so far has not located SARS-CoV-2 in any animal samples. The implication here, then, is that citizens and market officials must be obscuring the truth.
The only way to resolve these issues is to gather more evidence. Drastic has been doing what they can with online tools and databases for over a year. But there is now a chorus of voices asking for an independent investigation to occur.
On March 5, a group of scientists and researchers, in collaboration with some Drastic members including Demaneuf and Segreto, published an open letter in The Wall Street Journal and French publication Le Monde calling for a "full and unrestricted investigation" into the origins of the coronavirus. They reason that such an investigation can only be carried out by a team independent of the WHO, which did not have the capability to adequately scrutinize a leak when it visited Wuhan in early 2021.
Some signatories of the open letter have pointed out how important Drastic has been in finding clues and gathering data, including the link between RaTG13, the master's thesis and the miners. Yet even as Drastic has rattled the cages and unearthed a trail of obfuscation, their heavy-handed approach hasn't always been received positively by virologists, other researchers or the WHO.
A recent 120-page report, released by the joint WHO-China team in Wuhan, found a laboratory origin of the pandemic to be "extremely unlikely." The highly anticipated study offered a number of recommendations for continued work in tracing the origin of the coronavirus, but none describes ongoing investigation of a lab leak.
It made no reference to the sick miners, except in an annexed section detailing a visit to the WIV, and didn't provide raw data from the missing databases Drastic has called for. Some members expressed their disappointment in the report, others suggested it was "doctored." They weren't alone. On the day of the report's release, 14 countries, including the US, the UK and Australia, published a statement voicing concerns about a lack of access to complete, original data and samples in Wuhan.
The highly politicized debate and lack of definitive evidence surrounding the origins of SARS-CoV-2 suggests we're still far from solving the puzzle. But in just over a year, a motley group of strangers have come together and helped shift the narrative -- if only slightly. "Working together we have been able to change the idea of a lab leak from conspiracy to a real possibility," says Segreto.
It was once taboo to even mention an accidental leak. In March, once the WHO-China mission was complete, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director general, said that "all hypotheses remain on the table."
"Do we ever get an answer?" Deigin asks. "I hope, eventually, we do."
Updated April 19: Includes full quote regarding the miners and denial of Bostickson's accusations from Edward Holmes.