The World Health Organization dismissed a lead investigator into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic “following findings of sexual misconduct,” according to an agency spokeswoman.
Peter K. Ben Embarek, an expert on food safety and animal-borne diseases, was dismissed last year; the dismissal was reported by The Financial Times on Wednesday.
The findings stem from events that took place in 2015 and 2017, Marcia Poole, the W.H.O. spokeswoman, said in an email. The agency’s investigations team first learned about the allegations in 2018. At the time, “there was a significant backlog,” and the resulting investigation and administrative processes took several years, she said.
The agency did not provide further details on the nature of the complaints but noted that there were other allegations against Dr. Ben Embarek that “could not be fully investigated” because the victim or victims did not want to participate in the process.
Dr. Ben Embarek could not immediately be reached for comment. But he told Reuters that a 2017 incident had been settled. “I am not aware of any other complaints, and no other complaints have ever been brought to my attention,” he said, according to Reuters. “I duly contest the qualification of harassment, and I am quite hopeful in the defense of my rights.”
In 2021, Dr. Ben Embarek led a W.H.O. mission to Wuhan, China, to probe the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. International experts selected by the W.H.O. worked with experts from China to conduct the joint investigation, which China had repeatedly delayed.
At a news conference in Wuhan, Dr. Ben Embarek said that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus leaked from a Wuhan laboratory, pointing to the lab’s safety precautions. “All the work that has been done on the virus and trying to identify its origin continue to point toward a natural reservoir,” he said at the news conference.
The W.H.O. team was criticized for advancing narratives pushed by Chinese officials, including that the virus might have originated outside of China and could have spread through shipments of frozen food. At the news conference, the visiting scientists praised the Chinese experts.
But some members of the mission later said that China had withheld requested data. And in an interview with Science, Dr. Ben Embarek acknowledged that the team was working in a tricky political environment.
“The politics was always in the room with us on the other side of the table,” he told Science. “We had anywhere between 30 and 60 Chinese colleagues, and a large number of them were not scientists, not from the public health sector.”
As the team prepared to release its findings, U.S. officials expressed concern that the Chinese government had too much control over the contents of the final report.
The report concluded that “introduction through a laboratory incident” was “extremely unlikely” and that introduction through the food chain was “possible.” But the most likely source of the virus was spillover from an animal, they concluded.
The lab leak theory remains contentious; it has gained support in recent months, and U.S. intelligence agencies have come to different conclusions about the pandemic’s likely origins. Most virologists believe that the virus emerged from an animal at a market in Wuhan. But definitive evidence, for any of the theories, remains elusive.
Dr. Ben Embarek also led the W.H.O.’s One Health initiative, which is devoted to connections between human, animal and environmental health.
The W.H.O. has also come under fire in recent years for failing to take strong enough action against sexual misconduct. In 2021, investigators found that people working for the agency had sexually abused or exploited women and girls during an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Over the past 18-20 months, W.H.O. has embarked on a comprehensive program to drive systemic change throughout the organization to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct,” Ms. Poole said in an email. The agency has cleared its backlog and aims to complete future investigations in 120 days or less, she said.
A new sexual misconduct policy went into effect in March. The new policy “is a key part of making ‘zero tolerance’ a reality and not merely a slogan,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director general, said in a statement at the time.