We need to talk about the ToRs

Research by DRASTIC, a group of researchers working together to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2, starting from facts and not bending to any pressure. DRASTIC members were the first to discover the Mojiang ‘miners’ story.


Here we examine the circumstances behind the redaction of the Terms-of-Reference (ToRs) of the Global Study of the Origins of SARS-COV2.

These ToRs were published on the WHO website on the 5th November 2020 after being negotiated in July 2020 by a small WHO team sent to China.

While these very restrictive ToRs had huge consequences in limiting the China-WHO team ability to properly look into a lab accident pathway, actually very little is known about the process that resulted in such imperfect Terms of Reference.

The purpose of this article to review what we know about the genesis of these ToRs and to ask relevant questions.

1. The ToRs and their limitations

The ToRs were negotiated during a visit by a small WHO team to China without any international oversight. That team of two individuals was headed by Peter Embarek who would later become the head of the international component of the China-WHO joint-study team.

It was reported that Embarek stayed in China from the 10th July 2020 to the 3rd August 2020, where he spent the first 10 days in quarantine.

The ToRs we eventually made public when eventually published on the WHO website on the 5th November 2020:


While the TORs were negotiated mainly summer 2020 and published without any publicity three months later, their consequences on the conduct of the China-WHO joint-team mission would soon prove essential.
Basically the ToRs were mired with structural issues which could only limit chances of success of the joint-team mission.

I have annotated here some of these limitations, but suffice to say that

Very first paragraphs of the ToRs
  • The ToRs explicitly state that SARS-CoV-2 had a natural zoonosis origin. The tone is set straight up in the first paragraphs of the document.
  • The ToRs accordingly never provide for investigation of a lab-related accident pathway, despite many precedents, for instance with SARS in Beijing in 2003.
  • The ToRs give veto right to China on the composition of the joint-team.
Annotated ToRs
  • That veto seems to have been used as the three candidates proposed by the US were all ignored.

A spokesperson at the Department of Health and Human Services said the U.S. government sent the WHO three names — from the CDC, the National Institutes of Health and the FDA — but none were contacted by the WHO. “If there is an American included on the origins panel, it is not one of the 3 [U.S. government] recommendations,” the spokesperson said.
Source: Politico

And also:

The WHO on Aug. 17 appealed for experts to join the international team. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sent names of three candidates to the WHO through the State Department. They included a virologist who is an expert on viruses that require study in high-security laboratories; a senior veterinarian; and a medical epidemiologist leading a program in global health security.
WHO staffers reviewed about 40 résumés, the agency’s Mr. Jasarevic said. None of the experts Washington recommended received a call, said U.S. officials.
“These candidates’ CVs were included in the pool of CVs evaluated,” said Mr. Jasarevic. “Unfortunately, we could not take all in the team.”
Source: WSJ

  • The US names put forward to the WHO via ADM Bret Giroir (US representative on the executive board of the World Health Organization) were:
    - CDC epidemiologist Matt Moore, Director of CDC Vietnam’s Global Health Security Program,
    - Navy Captain Brianna Skinner, DVM, MPH, FDA Senior Regulatory Veterinarian
    - Dr Heinz Feldmann (German & American), chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Labs (BSL-4) where he works with NIH and NIAID. Expert on BSL4 and BSL-3 containment.
  • The WHO would later deny that that available veto was exercised. However given that it had been negotiated in the ToRs it is rather unlikely that this is the full truth.
    Instead in a manner that many China experts would likely immediately recognise, it is quite possible that China had a chance to indirectly validate (possibly through a conversation) which candidate would make it to the list. Then that list would have been officially presented and immediately accepted. Thus the claim that China approved the list without raising any concern could be technically true, while for all purpose misleading.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said China didn’t weigh in on the agency’s selection of team members or object to any who had been chosen.
Source: WSJ

  • The ToRs stipulates that the joint-team must largely review work done by China — the joint-team is not in a position to do its own independent research. The work is effectively done by the Chinese side, with some review by the international part of the team and possible requests for improvements or further considerations, but in fine the international members can only rely on what the Chinese side decides to provide them with.
Annotated ToRs
  • As per the ToRs (section ‘Ways of working’) and as confirmed by media reports, the joint-team work started in late 2020 (around October) via conference calls. The joint-team trip to China in February 2021 was actually just the medialised tail end of a work that has started about 3 months earlier. Very little is known about the earlier work conducted remotely — we can only imagine that it entailed reviews of progresses and tentative requests for more data and complementary studies.

2. The ToRs as Step 1 of a required Global study

  • We note that the ToRs take great efforts to present themselves as the Phase 1 of a Global study of the origins, starting with the designation as ‘Terms-of-Reference (ToRs) of the Global Study of the Origins of SARS-COV2’).
  • This is also stated straight up in the 3rd paragraph of the ToRs and repeated at length on the 4th paragraph, a paragraph that essentially points to a very controversial possible origin outside of China, enrolling for that purpose a sewage sample study in Barcelona that had serious methodological issues.
Extract from the very first page of the ToRs
  • Phase 2 (‘Long Term Plans’) of the ToRs then states the need for for further studies in other geographical areas:
ToRS — page 8

3. Secret negotiations and their implications

Quite surprisingly given their importance, the ToRs were directly negotiated between the WHO and China without any international oversight at all.

It did not have to be that way. While the US was about to leave the WHO, it still had a seat at the WHO executive board and thus argued that the board should be consulted for the drafting of the ToRs. However, in part due to the lack of international support, that solution which would have insured some transparence did not come out to be.

[ — ] Mr. Trump announced the U.S. would leave the WHO. Yet American officials still wanted to help shape the inquiry and had an avenue: The U.S. had a seat on the U.N. organization’s governing executive board until 2021. But the board, which includes representatives from 34 governments, wasn’t brought in to consult on negotiating the terms of research.

Instead, the WHO hashed out those details directly with China. U.S. officials had urged the WHO to consult with the board, due to the human and economic toll of the pandemic, a U.S. official said. “It was a unique scenario,” the official said. “The normal way of doing business was not appropriate.”
Source: WSJ

It’s essentially a case of a very opaque genesis delivering a document with essential structural flaws. These flaws would later result in a highly controversial and superficial treatment of the lab-pathway by the joint-team, treated with a mere 440 words (less than 1% of the report) in the final report.

The result was so poor that it drew a rare and courageous rebuke of Dr Tedros who expressed his dissatisfaction with the way the lab-pathway had been summarily rejected in the final report:

“The team also visited several laboratories in Wuhan and considered the possibility that the virus entered the human population as a result of a laboratory incident.

However, I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough. Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.

Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy.”
Source: WHO

All we know is that a small team of maybe 2 WHO representatives, led by Peter Embarek, travelled to China between the 10th July and the 3rd August to negotiate these ToRs — and spent the first two weeks in quarantine. The second person may have been Olivier Le Polain (see further below).

A leaked memo written by Peter Embarek disclosed that China has essentially done close to nothing in epidemiological work since the WHO first visit in February 2020, to the irritation of Peter Embarek.

“Following extensive discussions with and presentation from Chinese counterparts, it appears that little had been done in terms of epidemiological investigations around Wuhan since January 2020. The data presented orally gave a few more details than what was presented at the emergency committee meetings in January 2020. No PowerPoint presentations were made and no documents were shared,” the report said.
Source: The Guardian

We can only infer that most of the WHO team’s time was then spent negotiating the ToRs instead of reviewing non existent studies and presentations.

4. Timing issues with the ToRs

Another problem with the ToRs has to do with the official timing of their negotiation and publication, which conflicts with circumstantial evidence.

  • The WHO says that the ToRs were completed by fall 2020.
  • But actually the ToRs are dated 31st July on the first page:
  • The file name is 20200802_tors_chn-and-who-agreed-final-version, so clearly the final version was finalized by the 2nd August.
  • We know that Peter Embarek was in China from the 10th July to the 3rd August. WHO + China would typically have nailed these down before his departure, hence the 2nd August makes a lot of sense.
  • The PDF itself was produced on the 24th October 20. The author of the PDF is given as being Olivier Le Polain who is a UK epidemiologist — who according to some source was part of the larger WHO team involved with the joint-study. It is possible, but still speculative, that he was the person accompanying Embarek in July 20 for the negotiation of the ToRs.
  • The document was added to the WHO site on the 5th November 20.

The key dates are summarised below:

Main ToRs dates

5. Questions:

  • Why were the ToRs negotiated secretly when their importance was actually capital?
  • How could the WHO agree to ToRs that explicitly excluded any possible lab-related origin, when today Dr Tedros himself consider this a valid line of enquiry that requires proper work?
  • How could the ToRs be so lenient on China, especially by relying quasi-exclusively on Chinese studies, despite the fact that by the time of the negotiation of the ToRs, China had essentially done no such study at all since the WHO visit in February 2020 - at the clear irritation of Peter Embarek himself?
  • Why is the official narrative that the ToRs were finalised in fall 2020 when they were finalised by the 2nd August 20?
  • Why did the WHO delay from the 2nd August to the 5th November before publishing the ToRs?
  • What is Olivier Le Polain’s role with regard to the WHO? Why does his name appear as ‘Author’ in the PDF metadata? Was he with Peter Embarek in China to negotiate the ToRs?
  • What did the international joint-team members exactly do in the fall of 2020 when they were already working on the joint-study, before their trip to China, and how was the cooperation with China at the time?



Opinions, analyses and views expressed are purely mine and should not in any way be characterised as representing any institution.

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Gilles Demaneuf

Opinions, analyses and views expressed are purely mine and should not in any way be characterised as representing any institution.