April 13, 2021

Feng Zijian played a central role in the World Health Organisation’s inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. The Chinese epidemiologist was one of the team leaders who briefed diplomats on the findings, which fell suspiciously in line with Beijing’s version of events. Feng explained how the carefully vetted team had concluded that the virus was most likely to be a natural disease that spilled over from bats to humans, although it could have been imported on frozen food. The chance of a leak from a Chinese laboratory was dismissed as “extremely unlikely”.

The Chinese-controlled results sparked global accusations of a whitewash and further corroded confidence in the WHO. Few experts give much credibility to claims the pandemic was imported on a packet of chilled pork or slab of frozen pangolin sold at a market. And demands are growing for the leak hypothesis to be taken more seriously. Wuhan, after all, is the major research centre for bat coronaviruses in Asia, where there are secretive labs, known biosafety concerns and high-risk experiments being conducted.

It has now emerged that Feng, deputy head of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and an expert on emergency health responses, performed an even more sinister role as the pandemic played out. He was one of four names copied on a CDC memo sent out in February 2020 ordering China’s scientists not to share any data, documents or specimens relating to the epidemic and to “prioritise the interests of the country”. The memo warned that anyone violating the request would be “dealt with severely in accordance with discipline, laws and regulations” — a threat to be taken seriously in a country ruled by fear.

The document, originally obtained by Associated Press last year among a cache labelled “not to be made public”, was a key plank in President Xi Jinping’s campaign to regain control of the pandemic narrative by silencing dissenting scientific voices and shutting down internal debate. It was sent out following the publication of report by two Chinese scientists which concluded “the coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory”, as well as a series of investigations by local media and citizen reporters into pandemic failings. The scientific report was swiftly withdrawn and journalists jailed on grounds such as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

This nugget about Dr Feng’s disturbing dual role — as a voice of the WHO study into pandemic origins while also party to a Communist dictatorship’s clampdown on unfettered scientific discussion — was dug out by an Indian architect and film-maker, who shared it earlier this month on social media under his moniker ‘The Seeker’. “I know how to use a search engine,” he told me.

Last year, he made an even more significant discovery: a thesis that discussed how three miners died of a mysterious respiratory disease, eerily similar to Covid 19, they caught while clearing out bat droppings in a cave network in Yunnan, southern China. The trio were infected in an abandoned copper mine where scientists from Wuhan Institute of Virology sampled RaTG13, the closest known relative of Sars-Cov-2.

‘The Seeker’ is a member of Drastic, an informal guerilla group of internet sleuths, scientists and data experts who have spent the past year scouring a multitude of digital sources for such vital pieces of evidence. Some members have expertise in areas such as microbiology, genetics and virology. Others are data specialists, engineers or simply obsessed with discovering the truth about the origin of this wretched pandemic. Some hide their identities; others are open. They have been accused of hacking and fiercely deny it. Occasionally they hurtle down blind alleys.

Yet there is no doubt their collective efforts — and some of the illuminating evidence they have uncovered — have been crucial in challenging both China and the scientific establishment to ensure the lab leak theory is properly investigated. “We have exposed so many things they wanted to cover up, while there has been too much geo-politics around the issues,” said Gilles Demaneuf, a French data scientist who works at a New Zealand bank and is another Drastic member. “Many people now accept there is a possibility that a lab leak was the cause of the pandemic and that this is not a conspiracy theory as claimed at the outset.”

It has been fascinating to see, in the course of my investigations over the past year, how this group of activists — in tandem with few brave scientists — has forced the lab leak hypothesis from the shadows. Note how the UK was one of 14 nations that reacted so strongly to the dismal WHO report by accusing China of “withholding access to complete, original data and samples”, while Anthony Blinken, the new US secretary of state, criticised China’s cover-up and called for deeper investigation at the weekend. Even Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general and a long-time Beijing crony from his days as a minister in an Ethiopian autocracy, had to insist that “further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions”.

Typical of Drastic’s work was the way Demaneuf stumbled across an interview in the Chinese magazine Health Times with Yu Chuanhua, professor of biostatistics at Wuhan University and compiler of China’s official case database. The Beijing line, rubber-stamped in the WHO report, claims the first confirmed Covid case was on December 8, 2019 with no evidence of the virus in Wuhan before then — although this conflicts with research published in medical journals, media reports and claims made by the US State Department that Wuhan scientists were possibly infected in the autumn. Yet Prof Chuanhua told the magazine there were 47,000 cases on his database by late February, which included one suspected fatality — a patient who had fallen ill on September 29, 2019 — followed by two suspected cases on November 14 and 21.

This interview took place on the same day that Chinese health authorities issued their scientist gag. Prof Chuanhua subsequently contacted his interviewer to retract what he had said, claiming the onset dates may have been entered wrongly. Now go back to that memo tied to Dr Feng: it ordered experts to withdraw and redo any papers or “progress reports” that had not been sanctioned. Is this a coincidence — or another sign of China’s appalling cover-up, now endorsed by the WHO?

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Another key figure in Drastic is Yuri Deigin, a biotech entrepreneur. Early in 2020, he started to doubt the conventional wisdom that the lab leak hypothesis was some kind of crazy conspiracy. And the more he delved, the more his doubts grew. He published his thoughts in a long analysis last April, first in Russian and then two weeks later in English. This prompted private discussion groups with fellow sceptics on social media, which evolved into the informal grouping with its determination to challenge a complacent scientific consensus that the pandemic was, beyond doubt, a natural spillover event.

Later, Deigin published a paper with Austrian-based microbiologist Rossana Segreto given the blunt title “The genetic structure of Sars-CoV-2 does not rule out a laboratory origin”. The Canadian-Russian scientist continues to press his case, having just published a pre-print paper with researchers from Canada, Japan and Spain highlighting the existence of undisclosed coronaviruses at Wuhan Institute of Virology, and expressing fresh concerns over its biosafety.

He has come under fire from other scientists. “They attacked my credibility,” he tells me, “my competence and me personally but I’ve destroyed critics with solid arguments.” Another scientist in the group, an academic in the US, was less fortunate. He lost his research post, which he says followed a complaint and warning to stay silent from his university’s corporate partner when he aired his dissenting views in the media.

Drastic has 26 core members divided into sub-groups exploring aspects such as biosafety, missing databases, coronavirus vaccine development, tracing and translating deleted documents, along with its own website. The co-ordinator, who adopts a mischievous style on social media, calls himself “Billy Bostickson”. He admits to feeling a duty to carry out the investigations, “out of respect for so many old folks who died and the terrible effect on local economies”.

Another member of the team is Monali Rahalkar, an Indian microbiologist, who wondered why prominent scientists seemed so certain the virus had natural zoonotic origins. So she started ploughing through scientific papers during her lockdown in Pune last March. “I read one paper that argued Sars-CoV-2 could not have come from a lab,” she says, “yet I could see they were doing lots of work on various coronaviruses in Wuhan.”

Rahalkar learned about the miners’ deaths and high-risk “gain of function” research carried out in Wuhan that forces viruses to evolve fast in order to assist vaccine development, but which some experts have long warned risk sparking a pandemic. Working with her husband, a fellow scientist, she carried out “blast” tests on genetic sequences taken from another strain of bat coronavirus found by Professor Shi Zhengli — the celebrated Wuhan-based virologist known as “Batwoman” for her expeditions to gather samples in caves where the mammals roost hundreds of miles from her lab. This strain came from samples collected in Yunnan and was identified in 2016, yet there was no link made to the miners. The pair were puzzled by their findings since it showed such similarity to RaTG13, so they posted a paper about their research.

Following their criticism, Prof Shi published an addendum to her paper in Nature, admitting these were the same virus and also linked to the miners’ deaths — and that she also has genetic sequences from seven other unidentified viruses sampled there. Inevitably, her reaction has fuelled concerns over the Wuhan labs, especially since this prominent scientist has admitted her first thought on learning about a novel coronavirus outbreak in the central Chinese city was that it could be a lab leak.

Drastic’s members have also found evidence of virus databases being deleted, anomalies in scientific papers and published statements, details of pathogenic experiments on humanised mice with modified coronaviruses, scrubbed lab website pages, even details about patents for bat breeding cages at Wuhan Institute of Virology.

There is still no conclusive explanation for the origin of this devastating pandemic. But science, like journalism, should always follow the trail of evidence to wherever it leads. This crucial issue was clouded by Donald Trump’s aggressive intervention on the subject, since his toxicity made it easier for experts to dismiss concerns of a lab leak as a conspiracy theory; it enabled respected scientific journals to close down debate and for reporters to ignore glaring conflicts of interest among key figures.

Yet the significance of these sleuths goes beyond even the task of unravelling the origins of a new virus that has killed almost 3 million people worldwide and raising uncomfortable questions over closed minds, let alone posing the question of whether scientists themselves might have accidentally sparked this global disaster. Ultimately, their digging is a reminder that in the digital age even the most powerful states, even an Orwellian dictatorship such as China under Xi Jinping, cannot erase everything from the past and hide all truths, however hard it tries.

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