Journal article Open Access
A probabilistic treatment can be very useful when trying to discover the most probable causes that are consistent with the available information at the time. In particular in such a treatment all assumptions and all probability estimates are explicit and are open for investigation. Here we explore the relative probabilities of a lab-related accident against a non-lab-related zoonotic event being at the root of the current COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so we use estimates of the relevant probabilities published in the specialised literature, especially estimates of the risk of a lab-acquired infection (LAI) and of the subsequent community outbreak risk.
We show that, based on present knowledge, the relative probability of a lab-related accident against a non-lab related zoonotic event is not negligible across a wide range of defensible input probabilities. For instance, under a reference set of input probabilities, the relative probabilities are at least 55% for a lab-related event against 45% at most for a non-lab-related zoonotic event. Even under a particularly conservative set of assumptions the relative probability of the lab-related accident is still 6% (to 94% for the non-lab related zoonotic event).
Through a review of the Chinese specialised literature, we further show that our underlying estimate for the probability of lab-acquired infection is consistent with risk assessments from Chinese authorities and specialists. We then review a list of common probabilistic misunderstandings that are often associated with discussions about COVID-19 origins and conclude by discussing how such a probabilistic treatment can also offer a way to properly guide an investigation into the causes of the pandemic while being able to embrace different estimates of the underlying probabilities.
As part of this study, we list 112 individual BSL-3 labs in China, across 62 lab complexes.