The interview by Enzo Reale for Atlantico Quotidiano with microbiologist Rossana Segreto on the origin of the coronavirus
In the climate of scientific and media self-censorship that accompanied the search for the origins of SARS-Cov2, the Wuhan coronavirus until a few weeks ago, we owe a small group of web investigators the complex mosaic of alternative information to the official version that allowed to rekindle the lights on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). About twenty boys of different nationalities for a year and a half have been collecting, deciphering, sharing and commenting on the web an impressive amount of documents otherwise destined for oblivion and indifference, contributing decisively to the scientific debate on the possible escape of the virus from a Chinese laboratory.
Gathered under the acronym DRASTIC (Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19), Newsweek magazine recently dedicated an extensive report to them. It is thanks to this patient research work and the consequent space of public debate that ensued that today we have, for example, fundamental information regarding the most immediate precursor of SARS-CoV2, that RaTG13 whose existence Dr. Shi Zhengli he concealed for seven years (we wrote about it in the reconstruction published last June 3).
In particular, DRASTIC’s investigations made it possible to directly link the RaTG13 virus to the deaths of three men who had worked in the Mojiang mine (2012) and to deny the words of Peter Daszak (close collaborator and financier of the WIV), according to which the Chinese they had never performed experiments on that pathogen and others like it since 2013 until the outbreak of the pandemic. Two fundamental steps in the chain that led to SARS-Cov2 from the bat coronavirus samples.
Gradually, the skills of specialists and researchers were added to the group of willing detectives: among them the Canadian Yuri Deigin and the Italian Rossana Segreto, authors of an important study in which they formulate a concrete hypothesis on the laboratory origin of SARS-CoV2 as a result of combining a RaTG13-like virus with the RBD sequence of a coronavirus isolated in pangolins. Specialized in biology and biotechnology at the University of Turin, Rossana Segreto carried out her research activity between Norway and the University of Innsbruck, dealing especially with molecular phylogeny and genetic manipulation of fungi. You agreed to answer Atlantico Quotidiano’s questions.Dr. Segreto, in a recent article published in the American magazine Newsweek you are referred to as a point of reference for the group of scientific detectives known as DRASTIC. Nicholson Baker of New York Magazine even called her “her heroine”. He tells us how her collaboration with the DRASTIC guys was born and what exactly it consisted of
Nicholson Baker’s comment was extremely kind. Actually I consider him a hero because, thanks to his article, Lab Leak Hypothesis has finally begun to be discussed on the main media platforms, at least in the US, passing from the conspiracy category to a plausible hypothesis. My first contact in DRASTIC was Yuri Deigin. We started an intense email exchange with genetic analysis of the virus and I invited him as co-author of my study, which was initially written in April 2020. Shortly after I started using Twitter and got in touch with the other members of the group. Some of them already knew me because they had read my comments on the blog of virologist Vincent Racaniello, in which I first proposed the connection between RaTG13 and BtCoV4991,When did he begin to have his first doubts about the official version provided by the Chinese government about the origin of SARS-CoV2 and why
I began to follow the news related to SARS-CoV2 since the beginning of the pandemic, because I was very impressed by the images of Chinese hospitals and the destructive potential of a totally new virus for humans. I downloaded his genomic sequence from GenBank as soon as it was available and I searched for the most similar viruses. At that moment the RaTG13 virus was not yet known and was not part of GenBank, so it surprised me a lot to find it in front of me, a few days later, in repeating the search. I thought it was an incredible coincidence that the RaTG13 had been identified precisely by a group of researchers from Wuhan who specialize in genetic manipulation of bat coronavirus. I started using almost all of my free time to read articles on coronaviruses until I discovered the virologist Racaniello’s blog.From there to fame it was a short step …
The link to the preprint of Andersen’s famous article “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2” was available on the Racaniello website. I then accidentally discovered that the RaTG13 probably had another name, BtCoV4991, and I posted this observation on that page. I was fortunate that many other people saw it and started asking Nature to clarify the matter, as she had published the article that first described the RaTG13 (Zhou et al., 2020). After 9 months, an addendum was finally added to that study, specifying that in fact it was the same sample. This is very worrying because it is not scientifically correct to change the name of a sample and not mention where it was first described. Furthermore, the mine where he was identified was linked to the deaths of three miners in 2012. with symptoms very similar to Covid-19. Two aspects discovered by another member of my group, The Seeker, who shed some light on this story.It could briefly explain, if any, the difference between gain-of-function experiments and genetically modified viruses
The definition of gain-of-function (GoF) is quite complex, not entirely clear and the subject of much discussion. Not all genetic manipulations are considered gain-of-function, but only those whose result is an increase in transmissibility and virulence. The exchange of spikes in coronaviruses is not formally considered gain-of-function, even if it is not always possible to predict with the available models whether the product of the manipulation could be a more dangerous virus than the original. Together with Yuri Deigin, you published a study on the genetic structure of SARS-CoV2 last November on ByoEssays. You can summarize for our readers the main elements that would suggest an artificial origin of the virus
Our analysis set out to argue a possible laboratory origin of SARS-CoV2, which had been dismissed early in the pandemic as a conspiracy. On the basis of the genetic analyzes we have conducted on the virus, we have come to the conclusion that its two most peculiar characteristics could be the result of techniques such as cell passages or experiments in model animals and / or direct mutagenesis. I refer to the furin cleavage site, absent in the group to which SARS-CoV2 belongs (sarbecovirus) and a key feature for transmissibility to humans, and to the domain for binding to the cellular receptor ACE2 (RBD) which had the highest affinity with the human one. We point-by-point criticized Kristian Andersen’s article which was widely cited as the best demonstration of the natural origin of SARS-CoV2, arguing that none of the arguments presented were valid. In our second article published in Environmental Chemistry Letters, we delved into the genomic analysis of the virus and proved that many other characteristics of the virus are more consistent with an artificial rather than a natural origin.In your study you come to formulate a concrete hypothesis on the genesis of SARS-CoV2: a combination between the coronavirus RaTG13 (the one found in the Mojiang caves) and the RDB receptor typical of the pathogen that infects pangolins. How did you come to this conclusion
Do you believe that the Chinese government’s initial insistence on pangolin as an intermediate host could be contrary proof of the reliability of your thesis
SARS-CoV2 is chimeric, most of its genome is very similar to RaTG13, with the exception of RBD which recalls a sequence found in a couple of coronavirus samples isolated from the pangolin. If the recombination of the two viruses can theoretically take place in nature, it is even easier to do it in the laboratory with the currently available mutagenesis techniques. Pangolins are very rare and solitary animals, not optimal characteristics to allow the recombination of the two viruses in the environment. Subsequent analyzes also showed that the pangolin coronavirus sequences cited by Andersen are not reliable, as we described in our third study recently published by BioEssays, due to sequencing issues and possible contamination.Dr. Li-Meng Yan says SARS-CoV2 is the result of a trial in which the People’s Liberation Army participated. The new coronavirus would be a biological weapon equipped with three essential characteristics to perform its function: direct contagion between humans, high resistance to medium-environmental conditions, the possibility of transmission through asymptomatic patients. You believe such a scenario is likely
I believe it is more likely that SARS-CoV2 is a possible live attenuated vaccine that escaped during the experimental and development phases. We found several signs of attenuation in its genome that might be compatible with this hypothesis. The development of a universal betacoronavirus vaccine has been a very active research field in recent years. A recent video released by Sky News shows bat cages inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2017. In your experience, it is normal practice to accumulate live animals in laboratories
To what extent this practice increases the risk of a possible infection within the research centers

Many research centers use live animals and certainly the risk of possible contagion is increased because researchers can injure themselves when handling animals and be exposed to viruses. Daszak, who is a close associate of WIV and has always called the lab leak a conspiracy, denied that the institute did experiments on live bats, which proved false thanks to research by DRASTIC. What is your opinion of Dr. Shi Zhengli’s work and credibility? In your
opinion because you have concealed the existence of RaTG13 and other possible precursors of SARS-Cov2 for years
I think Shi Zhengli is a very capable researcher and it is possible that SARS-CoV2 has escaped from another laboratory and not hers. If the RaTG13 was under trial, it is not abnormal practice not to disclose the details before the results are published. What I did not find correct, as we also pointed out in our last article, is the lack of transparency regarding the RaTG13 name change and full sequencing year (revealed by another DRASTIC member, Francisco De Asis), as well as not providing information on the furin cleavage site in its Nature publication (Zhou et. al., 2020).Natural zoonosis, accidental contagion from live animals in the laboratory, gain-of-function, biological weapon. In the current state of knowledge, what is in your opinion the most probable hypothesis on the spread of SARS-CoV2 Is
the least likely
I can speculate that SARS-CoV2 is either a type of vaccine that escaped before it was fully developed or a virus obtained with cell passages to be used on laboratory animals for vaccine development. I consider it very unlikely that it is a biological weapon, because it was not very lethal and because it was very easy to develop effective vaccines in a short time, unlike SARS and MERS, which were much more pathogenic. I consider a zoonotic origin possible, but very unlikely. To what he attributes the refusal of the international scientific community to consider the hypothesis of the laboratory accident
Who is afraid of what
Surely the Lancet article which labeled a possible laboratory origin as a conspiracy and which was signed by world experts and Andersen’s article had a strong impact on scientific and media opinion at the beginning of the pandemic. I can imagine that for some scientists certain conflicts of interest and the fear of losing research funds or jeopardizing their academic careers played a role if they expressed a different opinion. I myself have been harshly criticized by a colleague of fomenting movements against vaccines and of making people lose faith in institutions, but I have not been intimidated by these criticisms because I think it is essential to understand where the virus originated from, in order to prevent it from happening. again in a few years.He believes that sooner or later we will be able to discover the truth or it is already too late to find evidence of a possible escape from the laboratory It will be
very difficult to know from which laboratory the SARS-CoV2 has escaped, if it has happened, but I believe it can happen as for the pandemic of 1977, which only after many years was recognized of unnatural origin.

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