WHO Probe Leader Says Chinese Pressure Blocked Research Into Lab Accident Theory

The leader of the World Health Organization’s investigation into the origins of COVID-19 told a Danish documentary crew that Chinese researchers blocked in-depth study of highly contentious “lab leak” scenarios. The accidental release of a natural virus sample is not implausible, but the possibility is both unsubstantiated and deeply politicized. While on one hand such theories have often been promoted well beyond the strength of any available evidence, Chinese authorities have done their utmost to ensure that any evidence remains unavailable.

Ben Embarek led the World Health Organization’s on-the-ground investigation into the virus’ origins. The report was criticized even by the Director-General of the WHO and Embarek himself had previously admitted that “politics was always in the room with us,” casting doubt on the scientific rigor of the team’s conclusions. At The Washington Post, Adam Taylor, Emily Rauhala and Martin Selsoe Sorensen reported on the remarkably candid interview Embarek gave to the Danish documentarians, parts of which contradicted the WHO’s own report:

“In the beginning, [Chinese researchers] didn’t want anything about the lab [in the report], because it was impossible, so there was no need to waste time on that,” Ben Embarek said during the interview. “We insisted on including it, because it was part of the whole issue about where the virus originated.”

[…] A discussion of whether to include the lab-leak theory at all lasted until 48 hours before the conclusion of the mission, Ben Embarek told the Danish reporters. In the end, Ben Embarek’s Chinese counterpart eventually agreed to discuss the lab-leak theory in the report “on the condition we didn’t recommend any specific studies to further that hypothesis.”

[…] “A lab employee infected in the field while collecting samples in a bat cave — such a scenario belongs both as a lab-leak hypothesis and as our first hypothesis of direct infection from bat to human. We’ve seen that hypothesis as a likely hypothesis,” Ben Embarek said. [Source]

At The Wall Street Journal, Drew Hinshaw, Jeremy Page, and Sune Engel Rasmussen reported that Embarek was particularly interested in the Wuhan lab’s 2019 move, which roughly coincided with the beginning of the pandemic:

“It’s interesting that the lab relocated on the 2nd of December 2019: That’s the period where it all started,” Dr. Ben Embarek said in the TV interview. “We know that when you move a lab, it disturbs everything…That entire procedure is always a disruptive element in the daily work routine of a lab.”

The Wuhan CDC couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. In February, lab workers told the WHO-led team that there were no incidents or mishaps that could have unleashed a virus.

[…] He said he was intrigued by the fact that the lab relocated just as the pandemic was beginning, and said he only learned about the move after it came up in conversation with Chinese researchers. [Source]

In July, WHO Director-General Tedros said ruling out a laboratory accident was “premature,” and asked that China, “be transparent,” while reiterating a request for “raw data that we asked for at the early days of the pandemic.” At The Washington Post, Adam Taylor reported on a new book that alleges Tedros and others at the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva were “shocked” by the investigation team’s decision to classify lab leak as “extremely unlikely”:

“Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order,” written by Thomas Wright and Colin Kahl and due to be published Tuesday, reveals how Tedros lost patience with China: When a WHO scientist on a coronavirus origins probe announced in February that the idea that the virus leaked from a lab was “extremely unlikely” and unworthy of further investigation, senior WHO staff in Geneva were shocked. “We fell off our chairs,” one member told the authors.

[…] Wright and Kahl report that WHO leadership in Geneva were “stunned” by their colleague’s statement. They did not believe the team that went to Wuhan had the access or data to rule out the lab-leak theory. Tedros told the investigative team this, the book reports, but the team was “defensive,” describing pressure from Chinese officials that led to a compromise.[Source]

The Chinese government has rejected the WHO’s overtures about conducting a second leg of the investigation into the virus’ origin. At The Associated Press, Ken Moritsugu wrote that China’s top health officials have flat-out rejected calls for further study within China:

Zeng Yixin, the vice minister of the National Health Commission, said he was “rather taken aback” that the plan includes further investigation of the theory that the virus might have leaked from a Chinese lab.

[…] “It is impossible for us to accept such an origin-tracing plan,” he said at a news conference called to address the COVID-19 origins issue.

[…] Zeng said China has always supported “scientific virus tracing” and wants to see the study extended to other countries and regions. “However, we are opposed to politicizing the tracing work,” he said. [Source]

U.S. President Joe Biden—who led the U.S.’s return to the WHO, reversing his predecessor’s decision to withdraw—ordered American intelligence agencies to conduct their own investigation into the possibility of a lab accident. According to CNN, the agencies’ report is due to be published soon. The investigators are reportedly split between two theories: zoonotic infection in the wild or a lab accident in Wuhan. In an “exclusive” report, Global Times said the un-published report is based on “so-called evidence that has been fabricated so far is mostly circumstantial evidence that is completely unreliable.” Zhao Lijian, a bombastic spokesperson at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said “The world will no long be deceived by the old US ploy of set-up with a vial of washing powder,” an apparent reference to the United States’ claim—later shown to be false—that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in 2003. Zhao instead called for an investigation into Fort Detrick. He, and a number of other prominent figures in Chinese media and government, have embraced theories that coronavirus originated outside of China’s borders, possibly in a United States military base.

Nevertheless, China’s intransigence on investigations into the virus’ origin does not necessarily lend weight to the lab leak theory, The Economist wrote:

The Chinese government has reacted angrily to the idea of further studies on its territory. Zeng Yixin, the vice-minister of China’s National Health Commission, said he was “shocked” by the plan to investigate a lab leak, saying it was “impossible” to accept. According to the Global Times, a tub-thumping tabloid run by the Communist Party, 55 countries have sent written complaints about the proposal for further investigations to the who. Dr Tedros, elected director-general with China’s support in 2017 and derided by President Donald Trump as China’s puppet, may now face a Chinese-backed candidate when he looks for reappointment later this year.

[…] China clearly does not want lab-leaks investigated; but that does not mean it knows one happened. It is also being misleading about Huanan market, denying access to early-case data and obfuscating in various other non-lab-leak-specific ways. The most obvious explanation is that it does not really want any definitive answer to the question. An unsanitary market, a reckless bat-catcher or a hapless spelunker would not be as bad in terms of blame as a source in a government laboratory. But any definite answer to the origin question probably leaves China looking bad, unless it can find a way to blame someone else. To that end China has called for an investigation of Fort Detrick in Maryland, historically the home of American bioweapons research; state media regularly publish speculations about its involvement. [Source]

One state media cartoon connected the COVID-19 origins investigation to AIDS, a disease once scapegoated in China as an affliction of capitalism:

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