A motley group of social media detectives with backgrounds in science have been leading efforts to uncover clues about the origins of the Sars-Cov-2 virus, particularly if it leaked from a lab in Wuhan – according to new reports, which identifies one of them as an Indian based, possibly, in Bhubaneswar.
A group of 24 people that calls itself DRASTIC, or Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19, began looking into clues from Chinese scientific databases shortly after the pandemic began, Newsweek reported earlier this week.
The clues involve scientific papers that detail how researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and other Chinese establishments were investigating coronaviruses found in an abandoned mine, how these studies may have been meant to find a vaccine, and some instances where authorities attempted to conceal data.
Some of these have now come into the spotlight. Top American health official Anthony Fauci said on Thursday that China should release the health records of nine people, including six miners who fell sick in 2012 – an incident that may have kick-started a biological investigation into Sars-like coronaviruses, according to the clues uncovered by DRASTIC.
“It starts with an outbreak of severe unexplained pneumonia cases in 2012, which saw six miners hospitalised. Three of them died, and the cause for their illness was suspected to be due to “SARS-like CoV”. The symptoms were almost indistinguishable from COVID-19,” said the Indian who uses the nom de guerre The Seeker on Twitter, and was identified as among the DRASTIC members who pieced together the most crucial of the clues.
The group was also profiled in a piece by CNET on April 15, which identifies as The Seeker being a resident of Bhubaneswar, though in both cases, the person asked to remain anonymous.
According to tweets by DRASTIC members, particularly The Seeker, the illness of the miners may be the first time a predecessor or a close relative of the Sars-Cov-2 virus may have infected humans. “WIV went on a years-long investigation into the same mine, on the lookout for what afflicted the miners,” The Seeker wrote on April 8.
The clues the group has found has led it to suspect the WIV researchers were likely investigating the pathogen that caused the 2012 illness (and death) of the men who went into the abandoned mine, and one of the pathogens they isolated may have leaked from the lab at a later date. Viruses are typically isolated and grown in order to study them, a process that requires high levels of biosafety standards.
In public, one of the lead researchers of WIV, Shi Zhengli, said the miners’ death and illness was due to a fungal infection but DRASTIC found evidence it may have been a Sars-like coronavirus.
The illness of the miners caught the attention of the group when they found a Master’s thesis by a medical student in 2013, who described symptoms that are now associated with Covid-19. The thesis also described the illness as suspected to have been caused by a Sars-like coronavirus. A bulk of the clues the group found were in previous scientific papers and news reports – a technique often described as OSINT, or open source investigation. Chinese authorities have since restricted access to the CKNI database, where some of the crucial trails were found, Newsweek reported.
Officials and scientists around the world are now increasingly agreeing on the need for China to offer more access and disclose more data. These include detailed information about the projects WIV was undertaking, the origins of another coronavirus known as RATG13, which the Chinese scientists said were found in bats in a cave hundreds of kilometres from Wuhan, and the nature of the illness of three WIV researchers who were hospitalised right before the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 took place.
The debate over the origin of Sars-Cov-2 has ranged from it having evolved naturally, to being engineered — with one scenario falling somewhere in between: that it leaked from the WIV where it was being studied after being found in bats.
DRASTIC members also speak of overlapping genomic code snippets with other viruses for which Chinese experts have released the sequence, hypothesising the need to determine if the teams were carrying genetic modifications for further analysis.
The search for evidence for a lab role has been difficult, as is the hunt for a motive if the origin of the pandemic indeed lies in a lab.