There are really two stories significant stories here both of which come from an interview which Peter Ben Embarek gave to Danish documentary makers. Embarek is the person who led the WHO investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, including a visit to Wuhan. He had some interesting things to say about the lab leak theory. The first bit of news is that the Chinese scientists involved in the investigation did their best not to have the theory mentioned at all in the final report.
“In the beginning, they 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.”
You may recall that after the final report deemed the lab leak theory to be “very unlikely” there was some pushback on that from the Biden administration and later from the Director of the WHO, Dr. Tedros who said last month, “lab accidents happen.” So given where the conventional wisdom seems to be at this moment it’s pretty remarkable that we almost got a WHO report that didn’t mention the lab leak theory at all.
The second and perhaps even more significant comment from this same interview involves the way Embarek spoke about the likelihood of a lab leak. He argued that while a traditional leak might be unlikely, a collection error in which someone gathering viruses for the lab was infected might be considered both a lab leak and a zoonotic transfer. That hybrid theory, he suggested, was more likely than a lab leak alone.
“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.
Embarek even suggested a reason why Chinese authorities might be refusing to reveal all they know about the origin of the virus:
In further comments during the interview that were not included in the documentary but were incorporated in an account by the Danish channel TV2 on its website, Ben Embarek suggested that there could have been “human error” but that the Chinese political system does not allow authorities to acknowledge that.
“It probably means there’s a human error behind such an event, and they’re not very happy to admit that,” Ben Embarek was quoted as saying. “The whole system focuses a lot on being infallible, and everything must be perfect,” he added. “Somebody could also wish to hide something. Who knows?”
That’s a pretty stunning statement. It really sounds as if Embarek believes the Chinese pushback on the lab leak is because they know some kind of human error is involved that they simply refuse to acknowledge. And once you open that door then it’s just a matter of what they’re hiding. Maybe it was a collection error. Maybe a lab leak. Could be anything.
However, the Post contacted Embarek about these statements and he claimed the Danish interview had been mistranslated into English. He then directed the Post to the WHO. A spokesperson for the WHO also claimed the story was the result of a mistranslation. But the Post points out that this interview, which apparently happened several months ago, wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. Embarek had agreed to it before the trip to Wuhan and even recorded part of the trip on his cell phone camera for the Danish documentary.
It sounds to me as if Embarek was closely involved with the people behind the documentary but has decided to throw them under the bus because what he said is a lot more newsworthy than he may have realized at the time. The Biden administration’s 90-day review has led to a growing propaganda effort from China aimed at blaming the US (specifically Fort Detrick) as the real origin point of the virus. They are not going to take these new claims lightly. I’d expect the foreign minister to issue a stern statement about these comments in the next few days.
So far there isn’t any response from the Danish interviewers about the alleged mistranslation. It will be interesting to see if the story is corrected or if they stick to their initial claims about what Embarek said.
Even if he was mistranslated in some way, the fact remains that what he’s saying about a virus collection mistake, where a lab employee is accidentally infected and brings the virus back to Wuhan, is plausible. One of the big unanswered questions about the origin of the virus is how it got from bats living in caves hundreds of miles south to the city of Wuhan. A collection mistake leading to an infection would explain that piece of the puzzle.