The former head of the World Health Organization team that investigated the origins of COVID-19 admitted Chinese officials pressured his team to conclude a Wuhan lab leak was “extremely unlikely” in their flawed final report.
Peter Ben Embarek, a Danish scientist and food safety program manager at WHO, helped lead the international team that went to Wuhan earlier this year and, along with China, issued a report largely dismissing the possibility the virus originated in a Chinese government lab.
“Until 48 hours before we finished the whole mission, we still had no agreement that we would talk about the laboratory part of the report, so it was right up to the end that it was discussed whether it should be included or not,” Embarek said, according to an English version of the Danish TV channel’s article. “In the beginning, they did not want anything about the laboratory with, because it was impossible, and therefore one should not waste time on it.”
Embarek recounted his conversations with his Chinese counterparts saying, “I said, ‘Listen here. We must have this with us, otherwise we have no report. It will not be approved or accepted as a sensible, credible report.’ And he could see that, but he told me also that for them, it is difficult to accept that discussion about a laboratory.”
Embarek said he believed the lab leak hypothesis was “unlikely.” Still, the documentary said he compromised with the Chinese officials who didn’t want the lab leak in the report at all, settling on an “extremely unlikely” conclusion.
“There were other things I wanted in place before we finished,” Embarek said. “So, it was a conscious choice.”
Embarek said his Chinese counterparts relented in allowing a mention of the lab leak in the report “on the condition we didn’t recommend any specific studies to further that hypothesis.” When asked if the “extremely unlikely” terminology was a requirement from China, he replied, “It was the category we chose to put it in at the end, yes,” according to the Washington Post.
In early February, Embarek said the possibility the coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan lab didn’t merit further inquiry, saying a jump from animals to humans was most likely and an accidental release was “extremely unlikely.” Days later, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reversed that, saying, “All hypotheses remain open and require further study.”
The WHO-China report was widely considered a failure, partly due to the lack of access to key data and Chinese influence over the investigation.
Embarek said a lab worker accidentally getting infected while studying bats in the wild could be considered part of both the lab leak hypothesis and the theory it jumped from animals to humans.
“The laboratory discharge hypothesis actually covers several scenarios. One of them is that an employee in the laboratory gets infected out in the field while he or she collects samples in a bat cave. Although it is part of laboratory emissions, it is also part of the first hypothesis we have, i.e. direct transfer from bats to humans, and we have considered that hypothesis as a probable hypothesis,” Embarek said, according to Danish TV. “An employee who was infected in the field by taking samples falls under one of the probable hypotheses. This is where the virus jumps directly from a bat to a human. In that case, it would then be a laboratory worker instead of a random villager or other person who has regular contact with bats. So, it is actually in the probable category.”
Last month, Tedros said there was a “premature push” to dismiss the lab theory.
The Chinese government shot down the suggestion of a second investigation into its government labs in July. The Danish TV channel said Embarek spoke with them about China’s resistance to the lab leak possibility.
“It’s probably because it means that there is a human error behind such an incident, and they are not very happy to admit it,” Embarek was quoted as saying. “There is partly the traditional Asian feeling that you should not lose face, and then the whole system also focuses a lot on the fact that you are infallible and that everything must be perfect. It could also be that someone wants to hide something. Who knows?”
Embarek initially told the Washington Post the interview had been mistranslated, saying, “It is a wrong translation from a Danish article.”
The outlet said he declined to comment further and referred them to WHO, and the UN agency’s spokesman Tarik Jasarevic also said the comment was mistranslated, telling the Post the interview was conducted “months ago” and that “there are no new elements nor change of the position all hypothesis are on the table.”
“The interview took place in March/April this year,” Jasarevic told the Washington Examiner. “Dr. Ben Embarek was accurately quoted in original article in Danish language.”
It is unclear what the English version allegedly got wrong.
Embarek attempted to defend the appearance of the Wuhan lab in an annex to the WHO-China report as a major achievement.
“There are only four pages in the report about it, but it is four very special pages. Four golden pages I would say we have here,” Embarek told the Danish TV channel. “It’s the only place where people talk about it from the Chinese side.”
The WHO-China joint team’s numerous annexes totaled 193 pages, but the annex on its Feb. 3, 2021, visit to the Wuhan Institute of Virology is just four pages, dismissing the lab leak possibility, with Wuhan lab workers referring to it as “rumors,” “myths,” and “conspiracy theories.”
Embarek discussed the lab visit in February, saying, “Of course, they’re the best one to be able to dismiss any of these claims.”
Embarek’s new comments seem like a reversal from an interview he gave Science Magazine in February. When asked if it was a mistake to call a lab leak extremely unlikely, he said, “No.” He went on to say, “The politics was always in the room with us on the other side of the table” in China.
Embarek admitted to Danish TV, “We did not get to look at laboratory books or documents directly from the laboratory.”
Embarek said in the Danish documentary he believed another lab in Wuhan that the WHO-China team had visited needed further scrutiny. This lab is run by China’s CDC and its new building is reportedly 1,600 feet from the Huanan seafood market, where several early COVID-19 cases were found.
“I ask the management: ‘How old is the laboratory?’ And then they say, ‘Well, it’s from December 2019. There we moved to these new laboratories on December 2, 2019,'” he said. “This is the period when it all started, and you know that when you move a laboratory, it is disruptive to everything. Their last publication about working with bats was from 2013, but that does not mean that they have not worked with bats since.”