Stuart Neil’s day job keeps him pretty occupied. He’s a virologist at King’s College London, investigating how the coronavirus causing Covid-19 attacks the human immune system.
Then, in his own words, he found himself “falling down the rabbit hole” otherwise known as Twitter.
Or more specifically, the Twitter debate over how the Covid-19 virus originated, though “debate” could be a kind description for the arguments and accusations that fly over whether the virus jumped naturally from animals to humans or escaped from a laboratory researching coronaviruses in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
The duelling narratives have brought internet sleuths, conspiracy theorists, amateur scientists and virus specialists into the fray. Scientists on both sides have found themselves at the receiving end of Twitter abuse.
This reflects in a survey released by Nature magazine on Wednesday (Oct 13) that found more than 20 per cent of scientists making media comments about Covid-19 said they received threats of physical or sexual violence.
For Neil, the Twitter rabbit hole now means tapping out tweets on his iPhone while on the train to work.
He grudgingly embraces the label “zoonati” – a term used by so-called lab-leak proponents for the majority of scientists who argue the virus likely originated in bats and jumped to humans, as opposed to an infection route via a lab experiment or accident.
“If people with some expertise don’t weigh into this, then this [lab leak] narrative just goes unchallenged,” said Neil, who has more than 10,000 followers on Twitter.
This corner of the Twitter world can get vicious. One anonymous tweet said Neil’s view on Covid-19 was obstructing justice for the “4.5 million dead and their families that miss them”.
He shot back: “How dare you suggest that because I do not share your view of the origins of this virus (despite [wanting] a full investigation of all possibilities) I am somehow dismissive of the impact of this virus on people.”
Other researchers that disagree with the lab-leak hypothesis are more blunt.
“I am deeply offended that a mob of hobbyists, epistemic trespassers, and outright grifters, have hijacked this discussion and cast doubt on the motives, integrity, expertise, and competence of my colleagues and my field of study,” Canada-based virologist Angela Rasmussen tweeted in August.
If Rasmussen’s outburst seems over the top, documents from a purported whistle-blower released in late September only raised more questions about the nature of the bat virus research that was taking place in Chinese labs, sometimes funded by the US.
The main actors in this whistle-blower detour down the lab-leak rabbit hole include the group of internet activists known as DRASTIC, which published the documents; China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology that runs bat virus research; and the US-based non-profit known as EcoHealth Alliance, which has a stated mission to support research to prevent pandemics.
DRASTIC (Decentralised Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating Covid-19) published a headline on its website on Sept 20 that shouted: “Exposed! How EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology collaborated on a dangerous bat coronavirus project.”
Backing the headline were documents that DRASTIC said came from the unidentified whistle-blower.
They showed that EcoHealth Alliance in 2018 applied for a federal grant to study bat coronaviruses with three other US research groups, a team from Duke-NUS in Singapore, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The application for such a grant is nothing unusual.
It was submitted to a programme to prevent viral disease outbreaks under the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the US Department of Defence. It was ultimately not funded, the leaked documents show.
DARPA declined to comment on the documents, but in an email response added it had never funded any research associated with EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
A spokesman for EcoHealth Alliance said the proposal to DARPA was not funded and the work never undertaken, adding it never reached the safety review stage.
“Safety always has been and always will be of the utmost importance to EcoHealth Alliance scientists,” the spokesman said in a statement.
But the documents seen against the backdrop of a pandemic caused by a new bat coronavirus first identified in Wuhan include a proposal that surprised even dedicated zoonati like Stuart Neil.
Specifically, that proposal was to introduce a special feature to bat coronaviruses that helps them invade cells.
This feature, known as a furin cleavage site, also happens to be what distinguishes Sars-CoV-2 – the virus behind the Covid-19 disease – from any known closely related coronaviruses, though it’s found in more distant relatives like the Mers coronavirus.
The work, which would have been done in a US lab with viruses collected in China, was focused on understanding how this potentially dangerous feature could evolve in nature.
Alina Chan, a molecular biologist and researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, US, is astounded that it has taken so long for this information to become public.
“Imagine if the public had this info in Jan 2020,” said Chan on Twitter, a platform where she pushes for a full investigation into the lab-leak hypothesis.
“It might have changed how the entire world responded to the outbreak when it was still possible to contain,” she said.
Neil at King’s College said he was taken aback that the 2018 proposal had only just come to light, but it doesn’t provide any evidence to show the Covid-19 virus was engineered in a lab.
“Ultimately, we need to distinguish between any research that would lead to the presence of Sars-CoV-2 itself in a lab in late 2019, and contentious research that people dislike but wouldn’t,” Neil wrote at the end of a thread of 38 tweets on the subject.
“The latter is a different debate. The LLEs [lab-leak enthusiasts] blur this line, but distinction is crucial.”
As the DRASTIC report ignited more online speculation and accusations of a cover-up, Science magazine invited four scientists to a live-streamed video call on Sept 30.
The event was one of the first to bring together specialists on different sides of the fence about the origins of Covid-19, outside all the Twitter heat.
One of them was Linfa Wang, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at Duke-NUS Medical School, who was named in the coronavirus proposal to the US defence agency DARPA.
On the Science call, he acknowledged being part of the proposal, but said the Sars-CoV-2 virus was born in nature, not a lab.
“I’m not against the idea that you can artificially insert a furin cleavage site into a coronavirus, of course you can,” he said. “But nature always wins and can do much better than us.”
But another panellist, Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, said the whistle-blower document had to be taken into consideration.
“I no longer think it’s a conspiracy theory that the furin cleavage site could have been engineered,” Bloom said, adding that he was “stunned” to see the DARPA proposal and questioned why the scientists involved didn’t come forward to disclose it earlier.
Alina Chan, also on the panel, was more pointed: “We cannot rule out a lab origin right now, it’s very fully on the table.”
For Edward Holmes, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney, the leaked grant proposal doesn’t change his assessment that existing evidence for the Covid-19 origin points to animals, not a lab leak.
Holmes said the proposed genetic manipulation in the DARPA application was to be done by specialists in the US not China, and the grant was never funded.
He also said there is no evidence that a virus similar enough to Sars-CoV-2 was ever at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to have been manipulated or to escape.
“There should be a footprint, a sequence – there’s no evidence. People talk about these things, but where is that virus?” Holmes said.
He added that it was “staggeringly inept” for Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth Alliance, and the scientists involved in the DARPA application to not have made it public “when everyone is looking for transparency”.
In the hunt for the origins of a virus that has been blamed for the deaths of millions of people, transparency remains in short supply.
China has rejected a full independent audit of its laboratories, while the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2019 removed an online database of its viruses, citing cybersecurity concerns.
With the majority of scientists saying animals were the likely transmission route for the virus, China has disclosed little about any ongoing animal testing.
But similar bat viruses to Sars-CoV-2 continue to be found in nature. And a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports in June showed Wuhan markets had a sizeable, illegal trade of wild animals, including those susceptible to coronaviruses.
“The information we do have is very compelling,” said University of Arizona evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey, pointing to how early cases of human infection in Wuhan were linked to a market selling these animals and surrounding neighbourhoods, not the Wuhan institute.
The activists at DRASTIC, who include scientists as well as those who remain anonymous, argue that their work has made important discoveries in demanding a full investigation of all Covid-19 origin hypotheses.
Beside making public the DARPA application, DRASTIC discovered that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had taken down its virus database three months before the first Covid-19 cases were reported in Wuhan, said Gilles Demaneuf, a data scientist and member of the group.
More information that exists outside China about work within its borders could still become available, Demaneuf said. “Let’s start by getting that information – it does not require any collaboration from China.”
Publication of the DARPA grant proposal has highlighted the “cavalier” attitude of EcoHealth Alliance and Daszak to the ethical implications of their research, Demaneuf said.
The University of North Carolina, whose researchers were slated to carry out the genetic manipulation work, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Critics have questioned the tactics of DRASTIC – accusing them of cherry-picking evidence to support their claims and abusing scientists that have differing views.
But Neil at King’s College said there is value to what these behind-the-scenes researchers and academics have dug up, even if their interpretations are different.
“I don’t think dismissing them as all cranks and conspiracy theorists is helpful at this juncture,” he said.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.