“When you’re in the middle of a crisis and you have to ask for money, you’re already too late.”

That’s Dr. Beth Cameron, and she’s someone who should know. Beth runs Global Biological Policy and Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

She has years of experience preparing for and fighting the diseases of our nightmares, on the White House Ebola Taskforce, in the National Security Council staff, and as the senior advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs.

Unfortunately, the nations of the world aren’t prepared for a crisis – and like children crowded into daycare, there’s a real danger that something nasty will come along and make us all sick at once.

During previous pandemics, countries have dragged their feet over who will pay to contain them, or struggled to move people and supplies to where they needed to be. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think that the same wouldn’t happen again today. And at the same time, advances in biotechnology may make it possible for terrorists to bring back smallpox – or create something even worse.

In this interview we look at the current state of play in disease control, what needs to change, and how you can work towards a job where you can help make those changes yourself. Topics covered include:

  • The best strategies for containing pandemics.
  • Why we lurch from panic, to neglect, to panic again when it comes to protecting ourselves from contagious diseases.
  • Current reform efforts within the World Health Organization, and attempts to prepare partial vaccines ahead of time.
  • How the Nuclear Threat Initiative, with just 50 people, collaborates with governments around the world to reduce the risk of nuclear or biological catastrophes (also, whether they might want to hire you).
  • Which global health security groups most impress Beth, and what they’re doing.
  • What new technologies could be invented to make us safer.
  • Whether it’s possible to help solve the problem through mass advocacy.
  • What and where to study, and how to begin a career in pandemic preparedness (below you’ll find a lengthy list of people and places mentioned in the interview, and others we’ve had recommended to us).
  • Much more besides.

Below you’ll find a coaching application form, three key points from the interview, extra resources to learn more, and dozens of people and places you can contact to begin a career in this field.

If you know nothing about this topic, it is recommended that you listen to the first hour or two of the episode with Howie Lempel first, as it lays out the problem more gradually.

Subscribe to our podcast and you can listen at leisure on your phone, speed up the conversation, and get notified about future episodes. You can do so by searching ‘80,000 Hours’ wherever you get your podcasts (RSS, SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher).

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Get free, one-on-one career advice to improve biosecurity

Considering a relevant grad program like a biology PhD, medicine, or security studies? Able to apply for a relevant job already? We’ve helped dozens of people plan their careers to work on pandemic preparedness and put them in touch with mentors. If you want to work on the problem discussed in this episode, you should apply for coaching:

Read more

Three key points

1.

“David Evans, an orthopox researcher in Canada has created horse pox, which was a previously extinct orthopox pox virus. The research itself is not technically surprising. Pox virologists and others have speculated for years that the creation of orthopox viruses like horsepox and smallpox was now possible by good researchers. The fact that it was done, it really basically gives new life to the argument that smallpox can be recreated from scratch [by bad actors]…That reopens the question about democratisation of synthetic biology and technology…”

2.

“…one of the challenging things about biological threats is that it’s very hard to predict for any given scenario how many people would die simply because depending on where it starts, where it spreads, who gets on which plane, the speed of response, where it emerges or how it emerges – all of those things could greatly impact the numbers. The really important thing is that all countries really need to be able to quickly detect and stop outbreaks at the source before they become epidemics. In addition to that, we really need to be much better prepared to respond in real time than we were during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.”

3.

“One, we shouldn’t be pitting the need to respond to Zika – which was absolutely vital – against the ongoing need for global health security, and Ebola response and recovery in West Africa. Two, we shouldn’t be thinking about these things as emergency supplementals to begin with. When you’re in the middle of a crisis and you have to ask for money, you’re already too late. You need to have the ability to fund the work that you need to develop countermeasures, to improve detection capability, to create better diagnostics for new diseases that we didn’t know much or anything about, like Zika. We need to have that available to us in the government without having to ask for big boluses of supplemental funding in each case. It’s just not practical.”

“We need to be bold about how we’re thinking about these types of discussions … Recently, a number of countries and nongovernmental organisations came together and created the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, which is looking at new ways to quickly create and rapidly and equitably distribute vaccines and countermeasures for specific diseases. These types of public-private partnerships, where we’re thinking creatively about how to solve a problem and also not waiting forever to do it – we need to do more of that.”

Articles discussed in the show

Related episodes

Potential places to work, study or network mentioned in the interview

Other possible places to work, study or network not mentioned in the interview

The below is cribbed from a forthcoming extended problem profile on biosecurity:

Policy

Technical biology

  • Prof Kenneth Oye – MIT, Director of the Program on Emerging Technologies
  • Kevin Esvelt – MIT Assistant Professor, MIT Media Lab.
  • Dr Jo Husbands – Board on Life Sciences of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
  • Marc Lipsitch – Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Professor of Epidemiology
  • Prof George Church – Harvard Medical School, Professor of Genetics
  • Drew Endy – Stanford University, Associate Professor of Bioengineering

Social science

  • Dr Jane Calvert – Reader in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies
  • Dr Phillipa Lentzos – King’s College London, Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine
  • Dr Carlo Caduff – King’s College London, Director of the Global Health and Social Medicine Graduate School
  • Prof Sam Evans – Tufts University, Research Assistant Professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society

Research groups

Other

What are the key organisations in the space?

Major international coordinating bodies:

Think tanks and academic groups that focus on the area:

The existential risk community has a handful of people researching the problem:

Foundations that fund work in the area include:

Groups that do small amounts of work in the area include:

Get free, one-on-one career advice to improve biosecurity

Considering a relevant grad program like a biology PhD, medicine, or security studies? Able to apply for a relevant job already? We’ve helped dozens of people plan their careers to work on pandemic preparedness and put them in touch with mentors. If you want to work on the problem discussed in this episode, you should apply for coaching:

Read more

Author: Robert Wiblin

Rob studied both genetics and economics at the Australian National University (ANU), graduating top of his class and being named Young Alumnus of the Year in 2015.

He worked as a research economist in various Australian Government agencies, and then moved to the UK to work at the Centre for Effective Altruism, first as Research Director, then Executive Director, then Research Director for 80,000 Hours.

He was founding board Secretary for Animal Charity Evaluators and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community.