A Candid Conversation with Scientist Rossana Segreto on Catching Errors in Studies That Deny COVID19 May Have Started in a Wuhan Lab

When errors are not corrected and false narratives persist, should we still trust science?

7 minute read

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. 

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DICHRON: Last March you had another paper in Environmental Chemistry Letters titled, “Should we discount the laboratory origin of COVID-19?” In the paper, you and your colleagues concluded:

Several characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 taken together are not easily explained by a natural zoonotic origin hypothesis. While a natural origin is still possible and the search for a potential host in nature should continue, the amount of peculiar genetic features identified in SARS-CoV-2′s genome does not rule out a possible gain-of-function origin, which should be therefore discussed in an open scientific debate.

Again, you’re pointing out that there is no proof that the virus was not created through gain-of-function manipulation. It could have been. We just don’t know by looking at the sequence. And you call for people to have an open mind about this.

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SEGRETO: We don’t conclude that it came from a lab, but we say we should look into this possibility. At the time, any discussion that the virus came from a lab was being dismissed as conspiracy, even though the genetic features of the virus doesn’t allow us to dismiss it as a conspiracy. 

In this second paper we went more deeply into these particular genetic features of the virus.

DICHRON: A few days after this piece, you had another where you write about problems that have been uncovered in published studies that emphasized the pandemic started naturally. Here’s what caught my eye. You guys write:

In conclusion, we propose that the review process of all papers describing SARS-CoV-2’s closest relatives which could contribute to identify SARS-CoV-2’s origin should made public, allowing an open and critical evaluation by the entire scientific community. 

Wow. I don't think I’ve ever read a paper where the authors say, “Hey, we want to see the reviews of the others paper out there.” Because, what you’re really saying is “We don’t trust the review process for these other papers. Something strange is happening.”

SEGRETO: Yes. Exactly.

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DICHRON: And we’ve seen some journals like The Lancet and Nature publishing strange pieces that strongly conclude that the virus couldn’t have come from a lab. Especially what we learned from the emails made public about The Lancet, and how Peter Daszak orchestrated The Lancet statement behind the scenes to call everyone conspiracy theorists, without disclosing that he helps fund the lab in Wuhan, China.

SEGRETO: We point to a lot of conclusions by other papers that are not really acceptable. The paper published by Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Nature back in February 2020 had many errors. And it was quite misleading by omitting key information, as the renaming of the virus RaTG13 was missing. 

DICHRON: This is when she published about how the pandemic started. Her defenders said it was impossible that COVID-19 could have been genetically manipulated because there was no known virus like it. Then we found out later that a virus Shi Zhengli called RaTG13 had previously been called 4991, and had been collected many years prior. 

The Wuhan Institute of Virology had this virus for years and years before they published the sequence. Who knows how many viruses they actually really have and if they had a virus just like COVID-19?

SEGRETO: I first commented on this on a blog back in March 2020. I published my paper on Research Gate in April 2020. Then Mona Rahalkar also published a paper in May 2020

DICHRON: You’re commenting on blogs about this virus, tweeting about it, and then publish a paper. Mona Rahalkar then publishes a paper. Basically, people are pointing things out on social media that is then being confirmed in papers.

SEGRETO: That’s important. I mean, we work together. Then people started to speak more louder and louder about this possibility that it may have started from a lab. At the beginning it was really difficult. 

I then met Yuri Deigin and we published together in November. By then Shi Zhengli was forced to publish an addendum to her February Nature paper.

DICHRON: So after you commented on errors in Shi Zhengli’s Nature paper—then preprints by yourself and Mona point out other errors in the Nature paper—there’s enough published information documenting that Shi Zhengli’s Nature paper had a lot of errors in it. But Nature lets her get away with calling the correction she later published an “addendum.”

SEGRETO: Oh, yes.

DICHRON: But did Nature reference any of your papers that first caught the errors? Or did they try to pretend that they caught the errors themselves? 

SEGRETO: All the time they do that. They never mention our work. 

DICHRON: What captured your interest in this pandemic? You work on the coevolution of hosts and parasites. Your day job is very removed from all of this.

SEGRETO: When I first saw the images on television of the Chinese hospitals, I thought it was interesting that this new virus spread so easily between humans and was making them very sick. 

I downloaded the SARS-CoV-2 virus sequence when it was available and I searched to find the sequences that were closest to it. I was just curious. Then I figured out that it was very close to RaTG13, the virus that Shi Zhengli published in January 2020. And I looked and found so many papers came from her lab in Wuhan.

And I thought, “No. It can’t be that this virus came from her lab where they work on these viruses.” But it was such a coincidence. And I started reading about the research they do at the Wuhan lab with genetic manipulation.

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DICHRON: This all came about because you were curious?

SEGRETO: At one point, I proposed that RaTG13 could have been used as a backbone to make SARS-CoV-2. I thought it was possible because no other sequences of viruses were available. And an anonymous person on a blog proposed that it could also be a virus named 4991. 

And I looked at this 4991 virus and found it has 100% identical to RaTG13. I got so excited that it could be the same virus, and I wrote to Nature in March 2020. They wrote me that they informed the editors but never answered me if they could be the same virus. And then many months later, they had Shi Zhengli write the correction.

DICHRON: I had a piece detailing my emails back and forth with Nature’s Amy Maxmen and her editor about an error Maxmen had in an article she wrote downplaying the possibility that this virus could have leaked from a lab.

SEGRETO: Yes. Exactly.

DICHRON: Maxmen’s error was so blatant and went against reporting by Science Magazine, Frontline and Bloomberg. I even pointed out examples of Nature’s own writing that showed Maxmen was wrong. Nature just doesn't like to do corrections, do they? They want to pretend they don’t make mistakes. 

SEGRETO: No. It is difficult to still trust them at this point. The Lancet does the same. 

DICHRON: As you’re doing this research, you're being dismissed by Amy Maxmen as a member of DRASTIC. She has called you guys …

SEGRETO: Batshit. [Laughs] She amplified someone on Twitter insulting us. 

And then she wrote an article stating that one of my supposed co-authors who is not a DRASTIC member is a racist. 

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People in DRASTIC never agreed on everything. But Maxmen is just misleading. And one of her sources is Angela Rasmussen who makes up things. Yuri Deigen eventually wrote about Rasmussen (Open letter about Dr. Angela Rasmussen’s public lies and slander). One might think that Rasmussen wants to discredit us because we are putting her virus research at risk. She doesn’t seem to want any investigation of a possible lab leak.

It seems that grants to continue this virus research are more important than public health implications if this came from a lab. 

DICHRON: Another Twitter troll is Nsikan Akpan who accused people of being climate denialists if they considered a lab leak. Akpan called one DRASTIC member a pedophile to try and denigrate what you do. I read his tweets and found it hard to believe he is even a reporter.

SEGRETO: Yes. Akpan doesn't know much about virology. When he gets challenged, he doesn’t even have arguments. But he’s been published in National Geographic supporting Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health.

DICHRON: What has this taught you about science journalism? [Laughs]

SEGRETO: I didn’t think journalism was like this. You can't trust really what is written in the media. You really need to be careful with what you read, with sources. 

Luckily there are some journalists standing up to this. But some have written me that it’s hard to get published if you write about a possible lab leak. 

DICHRON: Reporters have told you this?

SEGRETO: Yes. It’s sort of like a censorship, which is scary because we like to believe we are in free countries—not Russia or China. It’s been a bit of a shock.

DICHRON: What’s interesting about DRASTIC is that none of you specialize in pandemics.

SEGRETO: I worked in the field of genetic manipulation of organisms, but it’s not the same.

DICHRON: And most of you are not Americans.

SEGRETO: Yes. We are from several countries, very few from U.S.

DICHRON: When I first looked at DRASTIC, I thought it was interesting that so many came from Europe and India. Is that because they have a different perspective than Americans? Or is it that you are not tied to Anthony Fauci and funding from the National Institutes of Health?

SEGRETO: Yes. It could be funding. There is the Paris Group that has also been publishing how the pandemic could have started from a lab leak and is demanding an open scientific discussion. 

So funding is important. The conflict of interest by people funded to do pandemic research is a big problem, because they don’t want anyone to discuss if this was a lab leak.

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Kristian Andersen published a Nature Medicine paper in March 2020 that said it was extremely unlikely the virus came from a lab. And then you see later they were discussing the paper before it was published with private e-mails that say there was 80% possibility that it could be genetically manipulated. 

It will be really important to know exactly what they discussed in this meeting, with Anthony Fauci and all these big names in virology. Because after talking about how it could be genetically manipulated, they then followed by saying it was a conspiracy to say it was genetically manipulated.

How can we trust them anymore?

DICHRON: Once it became obvious that a lab accident was a real possibility and couldn’t be dismissed as a conspiracy, then they had to totally reverse and say, “Oh, we never said it was a conspiracy!” [Laughs]

SEGRETO: [Laughs] They called it a conspiracy for months on Twitter and other media.

DICHRON: How this pandemic started is an interesting scientific question. Just trying to figure it out. But also, four million people died across the planet—a huge number of them in America.

Regardless, of where the facts fall, this exposed a lot of really seedy and terrible behavior in science and science journalism.

SEGRETO: Absolutely. And the peer review process for publishing papers on this subject can’t be trusted.

DICHRON: The latest example that came to light through emails was this commentary by virologists published by Emerging Microbes & Infections shortly after the pandemic started. It was titled, “No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of Sars-CoV-2.” The emails show that the authors submitted the commentary and it was peer reviewed and accepted within 12 hours.

I’ve had articles that have gone through days and days of editing and review by attorneys. This piece was peer reviewed within hours. Plus, the emails show that they ran it by Shi Zhengli at the Wuhan Institute of Virology for comments and changes.

Email showing that editors at Emerging Microbes & Infections ran an essay stating that the virus did not start in a Wuhan lab past Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

If this isn’t corrupt, then I don’t know what is.

SEGRETO: These Nature papers … do they even look at the data before they publish?

DICHRON: You spent a year and a half pursuing questions about how this pandemic started, basically pointing out errors in studies published in very prestigious journals. Has all of this changed your thinking about science?

SEGRETO: 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 and got so interested. 

If there is not a will from the government to go on and investigate … We can spend as much time as we want ourselves, but it’s hard to prove exactly what happened. Maybe we don’t figure it out for another thirty years.

But it’s good to keep the discussion open, because dismissing anything as a conspiracy means we can’t discover how this happened to prevent the next pandemic. And then in a couple of years, this will start over again.

DICHRON: Do the best ideas win out in science?

SEGRETO: I don’t know. I still want to believe that science can be trusted. It’s not all corrupted. It’s really important that people still believe, and we have so many important things through science; this was a really unfortunate situation. 

We can do it better. Science is really fundamental for humanity.