Source of rumor pinpointed: India-based 'science enthusiasts' weave 'Wuhan lab leak' lies using online content to feed Western media
Published: Aug 27, 2021 01:23 AM
Screenshot of The Seeker's Twitter account

Screenshot of The Seeker's Twitter account

While US intelligence presented its report on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday as required by US President Joe Biden, the compiled briefing failed to conclude whether the virus was transmitted from animals to humans or the result of a lab leak. This outcome is hardly surprising. The source of the alleged "lab leak theory" in fact came from "science enthusiasts" based in the Indian state of West Bengal that used Internet search and translation software to fabricate stories. A rumormonger who goes by the online name "The Seeker" is actually a member of an online conspiracy group named Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19 (DRASTIC). Experts have told the Global Times that such groups are often backed by anti-China forces. 

Unprofessional activism to fabricate rumors

The Global Times found that DRASTIC is a loose collection of internet activists with a wide range of professional backgrounds. The group has about 30 core members, almost all of whom have anonymous Twitter accounts. Through this social media matrix, DRASTIC members are constantly spreading conspiracy theories and false news about the "Wuhan lab-leak" theory and launching online public opinion attacks against scientists who hold impartial scientific positions. 

DRASTIC's clumsy manipulation of this conspiracy theory has been widely questioned. "Google search, Twitter, [and] Google Translate. These may not be the investigative tools one has in mind to unravel the mystery of the decade [...] But a crack team of amateur researchers have managed to use these services to amass evidence that has now compelled media and intelligence communities around the world to sit up and take notice of the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus [disease] may have emerged from a lab in China," India's news outlet Firstpost described the organization's work. Although there is no hard evidence, these internet sleuths have managed to piece together a strong argument, Firstpost remarked.

Although Firstpost praises DRASTIC's work, it still cannot hide the fact that the so-called "lab leak theory" was made up by a group of unprofessional people using unprofessional tools to put together unsubstantiated "conclusions". However, this assumption has been on the spotlight of Western media and intelligence agencies.

The Global Times learned that many of the rumors about China that have become popular in the West were originally plotted by DRASTIC. For example, there was the rumor that the novel coronavirus originated in a copper mine in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, when scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) brought back samples and the virus was leaked. This information, published by the Washington Post, was originally concocted by a core member of DRASTIC named "The Seeker". 

According to the Times of India, "The Seeker" is probably in his 20s, was a science teacher in the east of India and also studied architectural design, painting and film production.

The US news website CNET has described in detail the birth of the rumors. "Coronavirus, SARS, horseshoe bat, Yunnan [...] "The Seeker", a 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," according to CNET. 

They also noted that "The Seeker" discovered "what he was looking for" by chance, finding a master's thesis written by a Chinese doctor about six cases of pneumonia caused by an unknown virus in 2012 among workers at an abandoned copper mine in Yunnan Province. The researchers at WIV had taken samples of this virus.

After taking only a few minutes to read the abstract, "The Seeker" immediately posted a lengthy message on his Twitter account pointing that the source of the novel coronavirus disease was the WIV, with the tag "DRASTIC" attached, CNET reported. 

Moreover, DRASTIC has frequently published alleged reports or proposals. For instance, its founder Billy Bostickson has co-authored two articles. 

The first article titled "Proposed forensic investigation of Wuhan laboratories" attempts to provide the "evidence" that shows the WIV was conducting coronavirus disease experiments. The second publication called "Investigation of RaTG13 and the 7896 CLADE" tries to illustrate the similarity between COVID-19 and RaTG13, a virus that was brought back by WIV from Southwest China's Yunnan Province. These publications try to prove that COVID-19 is a laboratory "construct."

However, all these "investigations" from DRASTIC do not conform to even the most basic tenets of scientific rigor and have long been refuted by scientists.

In July, for example, Yuan Zhiming, Director of China's National Biosafety Laboratory and professor at WIV, revealed that in 2012, the WIV received 13 serum samples from four miners in Mojiang county, Yunnan Province, which were collected by the First Affiliated Hospital of Kunming Medical University in Yunnan and the State Key Laboratory Of Respiratory Disease.

After rounds of nucleic acid, antibody, and genome sequencing, no bat coronavirus disease was detected in the serum samples of the miners indicating that these cases are not related with COVID-19.

Yuan further explained that RaTG13 is a virus sequence detected from biological samples collected in Mojiang by the WIV team in 2013, rather than from the miners' serum samples in 2012. There is no evidence to show that RaTG13 and similar bat coronaviruses have a connection with the Mojiang miner's disease in 2012.

Final goal: smear WIV's reputation

"Publishing information anonymously and acting separately are the distinguished traits of DRASTIC," Shu Hongshui, a professor from the Northwest University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times. 

Shu is experienced in cybersecurity and closely studied DRASTIC's patterns of activity. He noted that the majority of DRASTIC's members publish work anonymously. Only a few of them would use their real names on the official website or their social media platforms.

Even the name of DRASTIC's founder, Billy Bostickson, is an alias, Shu said.

The Global Times noticed that some members of DRASTIC even declined to be listed on websites or social media related to the organization. However, DRASTIC stated on its website that many of its members, especially 'China Experts' and Scientists, prefer to operate anonymously due to privacy, security and professional concerns, and are thus not listed on their page.

Some of the members who choose to make their identities public claim to be a microbiologist from India, an engineer from France, or Spain, and a bank analyst from New Zealand.

Shu further explained that the members of the organization act separately when publishing articles or launching campaigns. Specifically, most of the articles or reports by DRASTIC are completed by one to three people. Members tend to collect evidence related to the origins of the novel coronavirus individually instead of collectively. Team founder Billy Bostickson has also worked with members outside the organization on so-called "reports".

This working style raised doubts on the forces that might be backing them. A cybersecurity expert said absolutely spontaneous action was "less likely."

"There should be anti-China forces behind them which are reflected in their activities. Under the disguise of tracing the origin of the coronavirus disease, what they are really trying to achieve is to prove that the coronavirus disease originated in WIV. This is very similar to how the US claimed China's culpability on the issue," Shu said, adding that "they claim to be scientists and data experts. However, if it was purely spontaneous, their efforts to trace the source would not be as politically charged as they are now."

Shu also mentioned that it is very difficult to clarify with the current evidences the specific anti-China forces that are behind them because of their fragmented operations and untraceable funding sources.

The US has been targeting China on the issue of tracing the origin of the coronavirus disease which has led an unyielding storm in the international community. Some anti-China forces are following the steps taken by the US on this issue while trying to blame China for the epidemic. DRASTIC is probably one of them, said Shu.

The Global Times noticed that DRASTIC has been getting the attention of mainstream Western media since February. Sky News, Newsweek, Vanity Fair and the Wall Street Journal, as well as many Indian media outlets, have all cited the group's views and hyped about how the group has changed the chapter of the virus origin. 

"DRASTIC is on the rise," said Shu, adding that the unfounded claims of the organization were increasingly welcomed by many Western media outlets. He also noted that "CNN published one piece of their works in June, which shows that the group ramped up efforts to expand its voices via these influencing media outlets."

How has DRASTIC, with many unprofessional analysts, been able to get so much exposure from the mainstream Western media? Shu told the Global Times that the team always released sensational, unprofessional contents to attract audience. Additionally, using tags like "independent, transparent investigations", the organization has aligned itself with Western mainstream values. There is also the coincidence with the "deep intention" of some Western political forces who wish to use the origins of the virus to stigmatize China and contain its development. 

Political war

Although conspiracy theories about the alleged "Wuhan lab leak" have been circulating for a time, it was not until February and March this year that they came to the spotlight of the mainstream narrative in Western media. Analysts pointed out that this is closely related to the change in the Biden administration's attitude toward the traceability of the coronavirus disease, which has led to a change in the position of some experts and scholars who used to hold leftist views. 

Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times that the real intention of the US government is to mobilize the American society through public opinion by pushing for conspiracy theories about the "Wuhan lab leak".

He noted that after defining China as a strategic rival of the United States, US elites have been trying incredibly hard to shape the so-called "anti-China consensus" among the general public. They want to ensure that their strategic decision on China is assured to gain recognition and support in the public's eye to make such decisions sustainable and legitimate. There is no doubt that the actions of DRASTIC and other organizations provided the "shell" for such public opinion mobilization in the US. 

It's worth noting that, apart from churning out China-related conspiracy theories, DRASTIC has also been exposed to have harassed scientists who insist that the coronavirus originated naturally. News website CNET reported that "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." 

Lü Xiang, a research fellow on US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agreed with Li's views. He noted that the US is carrying out a "political war" against China with the tracing of the origins of COVID-19 and is now using both overt and covert means in its mission. 

Lü told the Global Times that the US is giving the impression that it will "prove" that the Chinese government is responsible for the epidemic by using its strong intelligence and  secret tools to find the origins of the coronavirus disease in China. This is a very morbid "political war" initiated by the US under the unprecedented crisis of the epidemic in the country.  

He said that the US has a long tradition, experience and the planning skills to use "political war" against countries it does not agree with. Its ability to "disguise laundry detergent as a biological weapon" is unmatched by other countries.

Take the CIA as an example, Lü said. A third of the agency's staff has spent years focusing on political infiltration and political war against other countries. However, China does not have the professional institutions, tradition and capability to deal with and carry out a "political war", and may not try to establish such a mechanism in the future, he said. 

Given the above background, Lü believes that the US may indeed achieve part of its purpose which is to drain China's diplomatic resources as Chinese authorities must devote increasing energy to deal with the US' "political war". But at the same time, it must be noted that the US' "political war" also consumes immense political and social resources and this is much greater than the actual loss China has suffered.