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How likely is it that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a laboratory?

A random observation I want to note here is the relative lack of good disagreement I've seen around questions of SARS-CoV-2 origin. I've mostly seen people arguing past each other or trying to immediately dismiss each other. This seems true of experts in the space in addition to non-experts. I'd love to see better structured disagreement, i.e. back and forth in journals or other public forums. This might be a good topic for adversarial collaboration.

How likely is it that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a laboratory?

There have even been claims of SARS-CoV-2 in March 2019, which I think are almost certainly false positives:

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/fzAGNMeL7a4J8k7im/was-sars-cov-2-actually-present-in-march-2019-wastewater

How likely is it that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a laboratory?

Yep, these are the two hypotheses. So far I think 2) is a lot more likely. Decent thread on it here: https://twitter.com/Ayjchan/status/1349163446143746052 (or thread reader app link: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1349163446143746052.html )

How likely is it that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a laboratory?

I should have worded that better. I copied that sentence from a facebook post where I had a claim above that sentence that said something like, "I think this article is basically correct in its interpretation of the literature". The disagreement is about claims the  NY mag article made that weren't backed up by sources / were the authors original speculation. I meant to convey "I think the NY article did a decent summarization of the articles he cited -- that being said, while I agree with the general thrust of the article, I think there some points the author speculated about that are likely wrong"

How likely is it that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a laboratory?

For context, I have a background in evolutionary theory (though nothing specific to viruses or pathogens) and have recently transitioned from part time to full time research in the longtermist biosecurity space.

When investigating this question, I found researcher's arguments pretty easy to follow, but found some of the claims about ease of engineering to be hard to follow because they often relied on tacit knowledge like "how hard / expensive is it make an infectious clone of a new coronavirus".  And some the more technical molecular phylogenetics were difficult as well (what can we infer from dN/dS of various parts of the SARS-CoV-2 vs. RATG13 genomes, and how does selection for codon preference influence this analysis). I'd love to talk with someone who feels like they have a good grasp of either of these areas.

How likely is it that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a laboratory?

I've done over 200 hours of research on this topic and have read basically all the sources the article cites. That said, I don't agree with all of the claims. I do not think the SARS-CoV-2 virus is very likely to have been created using the RATG13 virus, because of the genetic differences spread out throughout the genomes. However, there are many other paths that could have led to a lab escape, and I'm somewhat agnostic between several of them.

I don't have a lot of time to investigate this further, but if someone was going to spend serious time on it, then I'd be happy have several calls with them, discuss sources & share my notes with them.  At this point I think a lab leak is more likely than not, with the strongest piece of evidence being the confluence of the location of the first known outbreak + location of the world's top lab studying SARS-like coronaviruses + absence of related viruses detected nearby + absence of evidence of any other plausible origin.

I highly recommend following Alina Chan on Twitter, who done a lot of interesting work on this question & has appeared to me to be pretty discerning. https://twitter.com/Ayjchan

If I were going to spend a bunch more time on this, I'd try to conduct an estimate using a Bayesian model, probably starting here: https://www.rootclaim.com/analysis/what-is-the-source-of-covid-19-sars-cov-2 and creating my own estimates for each claim + writing out arguments for why.

Nuclear war is unlikely to cause human extinction

Huh, I haven't heard this. Or, rather this was definitely the case early in the cold war re China, a good account of which is in Daniel Ellsberg's the Doomsday Machine. The US war plans considered China hostile even though it wasn't closely aligned with the Soviet Union, and planned to nuke its major cities in the event of a US-Soviet war. I would expect nuclear war plans to sometimes include military allies of target countries, but usually neutral countries. Though I'd be very interested to see a source to the contrary!

Nuclear war is unlikely to cause human extinction

I think what you're saying makes sense, but it's not clear to me how prominent diplomatic objectives of nuclear war are in current nuclear war plans. I wrote on this some here: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/rn2duwRP2pqvLqGCE/does-the-us-nuclear-policy-still-target-cities If you have sources for this I'd be interested!

Nuclear war is unlikely to cause human extinction

Thanks Alex! Yeah, I agree with you that adding approximate numbers or likelihood ratios would improve this, as would comparing my credences with Toby Ord's. I might do a followup post with some of this if I get time. Originally I was going to find a co-author and go in more depth on some of these things, especially the nuclear winter literature, but I keep starting and not finishing posts and I figured it was finally time to just put up what I had.

It would be good to separate "kill everyone with acute radiation right away" and "kill everyone with radiation in all of the food/water". I discussed risk of the first one and basically didn't at all cover risk of the second one, but I'd like to see a better assessment of the second. I've never found good sources for these kinds of long term effects of radiation from food and water after a nuclear war, despite spending probably 4-8 hours searching. On Thermonuclear War discusses this in depth but it's very out of date (1960), and I haven't found anything like a comprehensive analysis of this anywhere else. Lots of speculation here and there but nothing that looks rigorous.

Thanks for your feedback!

Nuclear war is unlikely to cause human extinction

Yeah, the point that risks from nuclear war would be coupled with risks from great power conflict is a good one. I expect this to be more of a problem in the future, but there could be some risks at present from secret bioweapon systems or other kinds of WMDs. 

My mainline expectation is that in a nuclear war scenario, chemical, biological, and conventional weapon effects would be dwarfed by the effects from nuclear weapons. This is based on my understanding of the major powers deterrence strategy, but might be wrong if there are secret weapons I'm not aware of. The logic of deterrence makes this a little less likely, fortunately. The whole point of a deterrent is lost if you keep it a secret. Of course it's possible that it's kept secret from the public but not from other countries, but this seems harder to keep secret, especially since it relies on one's potential enemies to keep it secret.

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