Duke expert urges caution in drawing conclusions from investigations into COVID-19’s origin

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DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Calls continue to mount to get the bottom of the origin of COVID-19.

To date, the virus has killed more than 3.5 million people. Getting all the answers about its origin will be difficult.

Originating with the horseshoe bat, did the virus that became COVID-19 spread from another animal in a Chinese wet market or did it escape from a lab in Wuhan?

“What nobody knows is what it was before it came to us after it left the bat. So, between the bat and us, we don’t know what happened in between. And we don’t know where that happened,” said Dr. Stuart Pimm.

That’s what President Joe Biden wants the United States intelligence community to find out. He ordered a three-month investigation. This comes as the Wall Street Journal reported three researchers at the Institute of Virology in Wuhan sought hospital treatment in November 2019 after getting sick.

China did not report the first case of the coronavirus until the next month.

Dr. Stuart Pimm is a world-leading ecologist with the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He’s spent decades studying the evolution of animal-borne diseases.

“It’s not a smoking gun. It means no more no less than they got ill early, and until we know more details about that, I think we need to be more careful in thinking that it is a smoking gun,” he said.

If the virus originated in a wet market does the possibility that lab workers became ill mean they didn’t maintain safety protocols? No one knows.

But, Pimm said he feels confident about one thing: “Everybody I’ve talked to thinks that the notion that this was somehow engineered by evil scientists, you know, is totally ridiculous. Engineering a virus to go out and harm people is seriously, I think, is difficult to do. And then why would you want to create something that would kill millions, many many millions of people, including your own. That doesn’t seem to me to be very smart,” he said.

Pimm isn’t sure the full picture will ever be put together. He does worry about politically based decision making and the effect it could have on future research and our own safety.

“I think we need to look into that,” Pimm said. “I think we need to be cautious about that. But, we don’t want to draw the wrong conclusion. The wrong conclusion would be let’s close down labs that study these zoonotic diseases, as they’re called. And if that were the case, then ignorance would not be bliss.”

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