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What will be the aftermath of the US intelligence lab leak report?

by ChristianKl1 min read26th Jun 202131 comments

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I wrote a long post laying out the evidence for the lab leak theory. It's very likely that when the US intelligence community reports on 25. August on their data about the orgins of the COVID-19 they will conclude that it was a lab leak. This then will lead to the discovery that the virology community mislead the public and Fauci will be forced to resign. Once he's resigned a senate committee will have a lot of fun asking him how the funding decision for Baric & Shi was made in 2015 while the gain of function ban was in place and why the safety framework for gain of function research that was instituted after the ban was lifted in 2019 was never applied to the grant even so it was paid till 2019. They will also enjoy subpoenaing Twitter and Facebook for the documents about how those started censoring the lab leak hypothesis. 

These events make it quite likely that we have a huge crisis of faith in the medical establishment. Milton Freedman used to say: “Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

There are likely two months to plan what to do once things blow up and it might be valuable to plan for the scenario. Is this the time where structural change to the medical system can be made? What solutions should be proposed to deal with malicious and incompetent scientists? 

Unfortunately, there's a good chance this will happen while we have a new SARS-CoV-2 variant that would be better fought by giving a third vaccination dose. It might be pretty important to have Novavax around as an alternative to the current vaccines to give people alternatives to the current solutions. 

Lastly, this scenario might be worth trading on. This isn't financial advice, but if you want to trade it might be worthwhile about coming up with your own probability for this event happening and thinking through what it will do to the markets.

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To capture the burdensome detail of this scenario, can you unpack your probability estimates for each step - conditional on the previous - and any reasoning?

Using made-up numbers for an example:

  1. The report will be issued by the end of August (95%) [usually I wouldn't worry much about this, but it's crucial for trading decisions!]
  2. The report will present a definite conclusion (40%) [I feel this is a high estimate, but expresses my ignorance]
  3. The conclusion will be "lab leak" (80%) [leaning heavily on the conditional on earlier steps, hard to honestly and definitely rule out]
  4. The virology community will be seen to have misled the public (33%) [when in this whole pandemic has epistemic vice been publicly recognised or even understood? But blame games are easier]
  5. Fauci will (be forced to) resign (50%)
  6. A senate committee will question Fauci about gain-of-function research (75%) [maybe 30% even without all the conjunctions]
  7. ...and subpoena Twitter and Facebook re censorship of the lab leak hypothesis (20%) [another conjunction, and kinda off-topic from virology]
  8. Causing a crisis of faith in the medical establishment which will drive structural reform (1%) [specific reforms to GoF research seem likely, but I'd be (happily) shocked by reforms that address the underlying problems]

And independently,

  1. A new variant appears, in 2021 (80%)
  2. which is best addressed by a third or additional or different vaccine dose (30%) [seems hard to approve, then produce and distribute at scale in the relevant time frame, but vaccines are great]

This is just way way way too many conjunctions. I get , a little less than one percent, without the structural reform clause or new variant - but I'd love to see your numbers.

If you list a bunch of single events you get way to many conjunctions. There are however alternative ways. Someone might win a court case to unredacted the part of Fauci's emails that's about the lab leak theory and the plans to fight it. 

The senate might create their own committee regardless of what the intelligence community report says and possibly even earlier. 

The report will be issued by the end of August (95%) [usually I wouldn't worry much about this, but it's crucial for trading decisions!]

As far as timing goes, I don't think the loss of trust will happen in parallel with the report being released. It's the start of more questions being asked.  

A new variant appears, in 2021 (80%)

Virus constantly mutate so whether or not you define something as a new variant is a matter of definition. The Delta that we have right now manages to have r>1 in the US, UK and Germany despite it being summer. 

...and s

... (read more)

An alternative story:

The report will be ~500 pages long, and shrouded in an impenetrable dialect of bureaucratese.  No-one in the world will read it in its entirety.  A lot of people will cherry-pick bits that sound like they support their previous conclusion.   Some people will declare that it proves the coronavirus was a deliberate Chinese bioweapon released to attack America and we should retaliate by nuking them.  Some people will declare that it proves that discussion of the lab leak hypothesis has always been unfounded anti-Asian discriminatory hate speech.  No-one will change their mind about anything or do anything different.

In the few cases where the report presents clear statements of fact, it will be pretended that they were already the viewpoint of experts.  Any media outlets that made earlier statements incompatible with the report will quietly edit or simply ignore their past statements.   Only a handful of people will notice or care about this.

Imagine thinking the intelligence community will be honest.

A lot of the individual facts are already out there from the NIH letter to the EcoHealth alliance and what the intelligence community leaked. It's really hard to tell a story given the facts that doesn't come out with the lab leak being the most likely explanation. 

Additionally, the intelligence community itself won't be harmed by finding that there was a lab leak. They can leverage it into more funding by saying that they didn't have enough manpower in October 2019 to investigate the WIV when it started acting strange and call for more funding to sur... (read more)

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These events make it quite likely that we have a huge crisis of faith in the medical establishment.

I am less confident than you in the lab leak hypothesis, but am even less confident that this development will shake confidence in the medical establishment. People rarely care much when experts get things wrong. At the most, I expect that there will be medium-sized media outlets telling people that the medical establishment is unreliable, and their audience -- the vast majority of whom had already agreed with that thesis -- will nod their heads in agreement. 

I'm unsure about how to operationalize a crisis of faith here, but I'm willing to bet against it.

I am less confident than you in the lab leak hypothesis, but am even less confident that this development will shake confidence in the medical establishment. People rarely care much when experts get things wrong.

Experts just getting it wrong and experts first getting it right in private, discovering that they failed to put related research through the official safety review and then telling everybody the wrong thing and organizing for the censorship of the right thing all in the span of 3-4 days are very different things as far as public trust is concerned.

Funding research in violation of a government ban and then that research resulting in a global pandemic is different then just getting a factual call whether something is true or not wrong. 

I would also be surprised if this meaningfully affected Fauci. Anyone paying attention already knows that he lies constantly, so if he downplayed the lab leak hypothesis for political or diplomatic reasons, is there anyone who would even care at this point?

It's neither political nor diplomatic reasons but preventing personal accountability for funding research that led to the pandemic in violation of the gain of function ban. 

There's an argument to be made that Obama did the right thing when he banned gain of function research and Trump was bad for lifting that ban. If that's what you argue then Fauci playing word games to circumvent the Obama's gain of function ban looks very bad. 

As bad as Trump?

Bad in a different way. Trump didn't fund research that associated with causing millions of deaths. 

What would unbanning consist of except allowing other people to fund it?

While unbanning they instituted a safety review process. While it might be possible that gain of function research that went through that safety review process (P3) still causes a lab leak, it seems that at the moment none of the grants that passed the safety review process are associated with a lab leak. 

So is GoF good or bad?

I would prefer no gain of function research (expect maybe on a space station where no material leaves the space station to go back to earth) at all. 

There some chance that this will be a public consensus in half a year but I consider it plausible that the mean policy opinion will be gain of function research should only happen under very strong safety protocols. 

So Trump did a bad thing when he restarted GoF even with safety protocols?

I'm not sure what your question is. What do you mean with "bad"? We are here at LessWrong and not at an outlet where you that needs to dumb down positions. 

Was it a worse thing than keeping them banned?

 According to what standard?

You've been casting judgement on Fauci, so it would be fair to use the same standard.

I have the impression that you focus too much on the political judgements to see what this debate is about. This post is not mainly about my judgement of Fauci but predicting about what the public debate will be like in a few months. 

I'm opposed to gain of function research and as a said above, don't want any of it on earth. That said in a world where gain of function research does happen on earth I prefer it to happen in an enviroment that is as safe as possible. 

On thing about the initial ban of gain of function research was that it wasn't made by the NIH or the Department of Health but by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Most of the people from there weren't there anymore after the Obama administration was over so the NIH got want they wanted.

I don't trust the NIH but I acknowledge that for someone who isn't a domain expert saying "Let's let the NIH handle the question of gain of function and trust the scientifics experts" was a reasonable position to have in 2017. Wouldn't have been my decision but I can understand someone making it. It's quite different from the decision to circumvent an existing ban that exists for safety reasons. 

Why is it all about the US? Neither of us is usian.

Because the US funded research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology that caused the pandemic.

I haven't yet read up on Jacques Chirac and his responsibility for the WIV getting their biosafety level 4 lab.  

I think you mean funded

if hadn't, the CCP could have funded it anyway.

The CCP doesn't think they know how science works. They generally try to copy Western judgements for what good science happens to be. That's why they pay their scientists based on their ability to publish in Western journals. 

Getting Western grant money is a signal that what Shi is doing is good science to the CCP. While it's not certain that the signal tiped the scales to allow the WIV to do their research when they lacked enough trained personal to do so safely (that's what they told US diplomats in 2018), it might have tipped the scales against letting them operate this way. 

Generally, it also makes no sense to give Western grant money to Chinese Institutes when they would do the same work if you wouldn't fund them with Western grant money. Giving that grant money only makes sense when you think it influences what research they are doing.

"Anyone paying attention already knows...." but that's the rub, innit? The pandemic has repeatedly demonstrated that there are a lot of people who believe only official, Expert-Approved(tm) truth, and who think of this as a form of virtue. If the knowledge of malfeasance in the medical establishment becomes part of the official narrative, then the number of people who are willing to believe it will go up substantially.

The pandemic has repeatedly demonstrated that there are a lot of people who believe only official, Expert-Approved(tm) truth, and who think of this as a form of virtue

It's also demonstrated the exact opposite..that there are a lot of people who only believe contrarianism. So it goes

It's very likely that when the US intelligence community reports on 25. August on their data about the orgins of the COVID-19 they will conclude that it was a lab leak.

Are you open to betting on this? GJOpen community is at 9% that the report will conclude that lab leak is more likely than not, I’m at 12%.

In particular, my actual credence in lab leak is higher (~45%) but I’m guessing the most likely outcome of the report is that it’s inconclusive, and that political pressures will play a large role in the outcome.

GJOpen community is at 9% that the report will conclude that lab leak is more likely than not, I’m at 12%.

This Metaculus question with a slightly different operationalization, and a longer timeframe, says 39% right now.

Halfway into the investigation we are now at lab leak at least as credible as natural origin: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/07/16/politics/biden-intel-review-covid-origins/index.html