When errors are not corrected and false narratives persist, should we still trust science?
By Paul D. Thacker
Shortly after the pandemic’s beginning in late 2019, virologists allied with the National Institutes of Health sought to shout down any mention of a lab accident as a “conspiracy theory” that dare not be mentioned. But some researchers remained unconvinced, including Rossana Segreto, a molecular biologist who was working at the University of Innsbruck. Following the discussion online, Segreto noticed that many of the papers being published to support the theory that the pandemic happened naturally—leaping from bats to humans—didn’t make sense.
After first commenting on blogs and Twitter, Segreto then began publishing papers that concluded the virus could have been genetically manipulated. She then allied herself with other online sleuths uncovering corrupt behavior by the Chinese government and science publishers. This group eventually began to call itself DRASTIC, short for Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19. Their goal: solve the riddle of the origin of SARS-CoV-2.
Sleuthing by DRASTIC eventually helped force corrections by Nature and other science publishers, and their work was highlighted in Vanity Fair, Newsweek, and a recent investigative documentary by the UK’s Channel 4. But garnering this attention also made Segreto and DRASTIC the focus of anger by journalists and scientists who denigrate anyone who questions if lab research may have started a pandemic which has killed millions across the planet.
“I did this all in my free time and had to pay some consequences in my private and professional life. But I couldn’t stop,” Segreto tells The DisInformation Chronicle in an interview from her home in Norway. “I still want to believe that science can be trusted. It’s not all corrupted.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
DICHRON: Your field is not looking at pandemics, but after diving into this issue, you published four different papers.
SEGRETO: I was working for five years at the Institute of Microbiology at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. And there I learned how to genetically modify fungi. I got to know more about these techniques, how easy it is that you don’t leave any signs of genetic manipulation. And this is the reason that I could understand quite easily these papers about the genetic manipulation of viruses.
DICHRON: In November you published a paper titled “The genetic structure of SARS-CoV-2 does not rule out a laboratory origin.” And you write that the sequence of the virus shows that it may have been genetically manipulated.
However, prior studies analyzing the genetic sequences of viruses that are very closely related to SARS-CoV-2 concluded, “Aha! This shows that it’s a natural origin.” But you concluded those sequences don’t prove anything; the virus could have come from a lab.
Why do you think people writing these other papers so quickly concluded that the virus sequence proved a natural origin?
SEGRETO: There are different factors. One could be that for people working in this field it is much better if we prove it to be natural origin. If not, they can face really big limitations in future research and also be blamed for what happened. At the moment, there are really almost no regulations so they can do all kind of experiments, really quite frequently.
It doesn’t look like they want to limit their work.
Another part of thing is the early publications in The Lancet and Nature shortly after the pandemic began. Both pieces said that the virus had a natural origin and were used to call people conspiracy theorists if they said it came from a lab accident. These publications had such a big influence, and scientists believe that they are such high reputation journals, that they didn’t feel that they could say something different.