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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Applying Qualitative Risk Analysis to the COVID-19 Vaccine Decision - 2

You have to understand your risks!

“Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing.” Warren Buffett

“The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.” Maimonides Everyone in the United States was faced with the choice: Do I get vaccinated?

In my last post I compared the risks associated with getting vaccinated with the risk of contracting COVID-19. We also explored the quality of the available data. While the data is obviously flawed, the known risks of either decision were so small that I had to declare a “tie”.

No help there!

We have analyzed the impact of the risk. That analysis revealed that both choices were low probability, high impact risk events. While that wasn't helpful in making our decision, we have another tool we can use. We can analyze the sources of the risk. Those sources are the vaccines and the virus.

The vaccines pose an interesting challenge. They were developed using mRNA technology (messenger ribonucleic acid) which has been studied for years as a potential tool to combat illnesses like Zika and rabies. One of the benefits of this technology is that large quantities of vaccine can be produced much faster than with other methods. Since this has been studied since the 1960’s, why would anyone consider the COVID-19 vaccine risky?

The first reason is that prior to COVID-19, the market for this type of vaccine never justified the expense of developing it for public use. Until there was a global pandemic. The COVID-19 mRNA vaccines were the first mass produced, mass distributed use of this technology.

Going first always has some risk associated with it!

The second risk is the vaccine was rushed to market. While the Pfizer vaccine was the first mRNA vaccine to gain full FDA approval, all the vaccines were initially issued under an “emergency use authorization”.

On the positive side of the risk equation, the manufacturers are all well established in the pharmaceutical industry. The top three manufactures are Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

We know where the vaccines come from, so what about the virus? That is a tricky question! There are two broad theories: 1) It occurred naturally and jumped to people 2) It was engineered in the Wuhan Institute of Virology and got out.

Which theory do you choose when assessing the risk? The problem with the “jumped to humans” theory is that the virus hasn't been found in any of the 80,000 animals they have tested, so this theory has a huge missing link. (goodrx.com)

The second theory seems more likely to me. There is enough anecdotal evidence to support the idea that the virus came out of the lab in Wuhan. As early as January 2018, the Washington Post reported that scientists were worried about the safety of coronavirus research on bats in the Wuhan lab. They further reported that sloppy safety protocols in the lab “represented a risk of a new SARS like pandemic”. The Wuhan lab was a Biosafety Level IV facility with sloppy safety protocols that was involved in gain of function research on the exact virus that got loose. In the exact city where the outbreak began.

Occam’s Razor says that the answer with the least number of variables is normally the right one, suggesting that the virus escaped from the lab.

In either case, the source of risk analysis asks this question. Which do I fear more? A vaccine developed by well-known pharmaceutical companies or a virus which is potentially an escaped bioweapon?

No decision. I got vaccinated.


This type of risk analysis is taught in introductory project management classes. So why haven’t we heard analysis presented clearly like this? You might not like my analysis or conclusions, but they are clearly presented. Have you seen analysis like this in any public discussion about the vaccination choice? I suspect not. I haven't. Now we are discussing Russia and Ukraine. Are you hearing any real, balanced risk analysis? No. Once you see just how poorly our “leaders” conduct risk analysis, you can’t "unsee" it. And that is frightening.


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