The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China pressured experts away from a lab-leak investigation. What is it hiding?

A security official guards the Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 3. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
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When a World Health Organization joint mission with China published its findings about the origins of the pandemic earlier this year, the report declared an accidental laboratory incident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was “extremely unlikely.” Though the laboratory had been conducting experiments with bat coronaviruses, Peter Embarek, the head of the WHO team, said at a Feb. 9 news conference that it was “very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place.” Ever since, China has insisted the WHO report was the final word, rejected demands for further investigation of a laboratory leak and pointed instead to virus origins from outside China.

But now Mr. Embarek has revealed how China pressured the investigators. In an interview with Danish TV2, he said the Chinese representatives opposed, up to the final days of the mission, any mention at all of a possible laboratory leak, on grounds that “it was impossible, and therefore one should not waste time on it.” When Mr. Embarek insisted that something must be included, he recalled, the Chinese agreed only to say it was “extremely unlikely.”

Mr. Embarek said he still thinks a laboratory leak “unlikely” but that the possibility is not strictly a zoonotic spillover or laboratory inadvertance. He said a Wuhan laboratory worker could have been “patient zero,” infected by a wild bat while collecting samples, a scenario that overlaps both hypotheses. “An employee who was infected in the field by taking samples falls under one of the probable hypotheses,” he said. “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.” It was previously reported that the Wuhan laboratory had harvested bat samples in southern China.

Mr. Embarek also suggested further investigation into the move of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Wuhan on Dec. 2, 2019, to a location near a market where viral traces were later detected. “You also have to move the virus collection, sample collection and other collections from one place to another,” he said. The WHO-China final report claimed there were no disruptions in the move.

Why has China resisted the laboratory leak scenario so strongly? “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,” Mr. Embarek said. “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?”

This is exactly the point. The origins of the worst public health disaster in a century must be found. A thorough, credible and science-based investigation must examine both zoonotic spillover and the possibility of an incident at the laboratories that China now conceals. What is China hiding?