World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that it terminated the employment of the scientist who headed a prominent delegation from the agency to China two years ago to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to allegations of sexual misconduct. Peter Ben Embarek, who led the joint team of scientists in China, was dismissed by the WHO last year. The agency has recently increased efforts to address sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation following reports of multiple incidents in the media. According to spokeswoman Marcia Poole, Embarek was fired after an investigation found evidence of sexual misconduct and subsequent disciplinary proceedings.
The WHO spokesperson stated that the investigation’s discoveries pertain to accusations from 2015 and 2017, which were initially reported to the WHO’s investigative team in 2018. The spokesperson further explained that additional allegations could not be thoroughly investigated due to the fact that the individuals affected declined to participate in the investigation process. On Thursday, Ben Embarek was unavailable for comment as he did not respond to a phone call or text message to his mobile phone.
In early 2021, The team collaborated closely with Chinese scientists and visited the Huanan market in an attempt to identify the origins of the virus. In March of that year, the team issued a report indicating that the most probable explanation was that COVID-19 had transferred from bats to humans via an intermediate animal, while dismissing the possibility of a lab leak as highly unlikely. However, WHO officials, including Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have since stated that the source of the virus remains uncertain, and the lab-leak theory cannot be completely ruled out.
In a TV interview in Denmark later in 2021, Ben Embarek, a Danish specialist in animal-to-human disease transmission, expressed concerns about a Chinese laboratory situated near the market. It is uncertain how Ben Embarek’s dismissal has affected ongoing attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding the virus’s origins. The joint WHO-China team that he led has been disbanded, and a new group of experts, convened by the WHO, has taken over the task of determining how the coronavirus originated.
As reports of the dismissal emerge, the WHO is in the process of assembling a panel of experts this week to evaluate whether COVID-19 still constitutes a global health emergency, given the significant reduction in case numbers and deaths attributable to the pandemic in recent months, albeit with a few localized outbreaks.
The WHO has stated that it has been taking steps to eliminate sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation within the organization following reports in 2020 of widespread abuse of many women during the agency’s response to an Ebola epidemic in Congo.
In what is believed to be the most significant sex abuse scandal in the history of the United Nations’ health agency, over 80 employees, working under the supervision of the WHO and its partners, were accused of raping women and underage girls, coercing them into sexual acts in exchange for job opportunities, and compelling some victims to undergo abortions.
Despite evidence revealing that WHO leaders were aware of the sexual abuse occurring during the Congo Ebola outbreak, none of the senior managers linked to the scandal have been terminated. An internal report from the United Nations, which was submitted to the WHO earlier this year, concluded that no wrongdoing had been committed by the senior managers who had been notified of the sexual abuse.
WHO announced recently that it had terminated the employment of Fijian physician Temo Waqanivalu, following accusations of repeated sexual harassment.