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In the words of Drew Endy, most biotechnology has yet to be conceived, let alone made true. And so in this large territory of unknown unknowns, it may be optimistic to presume there are only familiar dangers. So all of these make my concern focus more on human generated events using biology, in some sense, rather than dangers arising through the natural world itself.

Greg Lewis

Our lives currently revolve around the global emergency of COVID-19; you’re probably reading this while confined to your house, as the death toll from the worst pandemic since 1918 continues to rise.

The question of how to tackle COVID-19 has been foremost in the minds of many, including here at 80,000 Hours.

Today’s guest, Dr Gregory Lewis, acting head of the Biosecurity Research Group at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, puts the crisis in context, explaining how COVID-19 compares to other diseases, pandemics of the past, and possible worse crises in the future.

COVID-19 is a vivid reminder that we are vulnerable to biological threats and underprepared to deal with them. We have been unable to suppress the spread of COVID-19 around the world and, tragically, global deaths will at least be in the hundreds of thousands.

How would we cope with a virus that was even more contagious and even more deadly? Greg’s work focuses on these risks — of outbreaks that threaten our entire future through an unrecoverable collapse of civilisation, or even the extinction of humanity.

If such a catastrophe were to occur, Greg believes it’s more likely to be caused by accidental or deliberate misuse of biotechnology than by a pathogen developed by nature.

There are a few direct causes for concern: humans now have the ability to produce some of the most dangerous diseases in history in the lab; technological progress may enable the creation of pathogens which are nastier than anything we see in nature; and most biotechnology has yet to even be conceived, so we can’t assume all the dangers will be familiar.

This is grim stuff, but it needn’t be paralysing. In the years following COVID-19, humanity may be inspired to better prepare for the existential risks of the next century: improving our science, updating our policy options, and enhancing our social cohesion.

COVID-19 is a tragedy of stunning proportions, and its immediate threat is undoubtedly worthy of significant resources.

But we will get through it; if a future biological catastrophe poses an existential risk, we may not get a second chance. It is therefore vital to learn every lesson we can from this pandemic, and provide our descendants with the security we wish for ourselves.

Today’s episode is the hosting debut of our Strategy Advisor, Howie Lempel.

80,000 Hours has focused on COVID-19 for the last few weeks and published over ten pieces about it, and a substantial benefit of this interview was to help inform our own views. As such, at times this episode may feel like eavesdropping on a private conversation, and it is likely to be of most interest to people primarily focused on making the long-term future go as well as possible.

In this episode, Howie and Greg cover:

  • Reflections on the first few months of the pandemic
  • Common confusions around COVID-19
  • How COVID-19 compares to other diseases
  • What types of interventions have been available to policymakers
  • Arguments for and against working on global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs)
  • Why state actors would even use or develop biological weapons
  • How to know if you’re a good fit to work on GCBRs
  • The response of the effective altruism community, as well as 80,000 Hours in particular, to COVID-19
  • And much more.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type “80,000 Hours” into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.


The thinking behind social distancing

A lot of the physical distancing recommendation you’re seeing from various governments, including my own in the UK, is essentially trying to act as an insurance against this risk of people spreading it to others without either person realizing they’re at risk. So, in a sense, this idea of like, avoid all non-essential contact with others, doesn’t have a rider of like, “Oh, if both of you feel well it’s fine,” partly for reasons like this. But also people may not always recollect what symptoms they have. If you’re coughing like once or twice a day or something, maybe that’s a sign of a very mild infection for argument’s sake. But you may not notice that, potentially, and think you’re well. And so given all these things, there’s this general urge towards just basically making as little in-person social contact as possible as a way of reducing the spread of the disease.

If you knew for sure that only people who were having symptoms could spread it, which may have been the case in SARS, although there’s slightly more of a story there, then maybe this wouldn’t be as necessary over and above a milder principle of, “Please isolate when you’re feeling unwell”. But unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case, and hence why we’re seeing what we’re seeing now.

Why will it take at least 12-18 months to get a vaccine?

It’s worth stressing that 12 to 18 months would be fairly fast. It’s almost unprecedentedly fast by typical vaccine timelines. So the question is why does it usually take so long, perhaps? And maybe one way of looking at it is to go through the stages one might do to develop a vaccine and manufacture it. And maybe that would give some insight as to why this might take awhile.
So the initial step is sort of doing basic science or preclinical work in animals or cell culture. Basically to see if your vaccine does what it’s supposed to do, which is essentially provoke the right immune response. And then once you’ve got something which seems to work in your animal or whatever, you then want to see if it actually is safe to give to a person. And so this is usually what’s called phase one study, which is a phase of study where you give small groups of people vaccinations to test safety. And particularly with coronavirus vaccination, that is a major worry insofar as what we saw in previous attempts to vaccinate against something like SARS was these vaccines could backfire, in that they can actually enhance disease rather than protect against it through a variety of mechanisms, which obviously is very bad. You don’t want to mass administer something that then actually makes people have worse outcomes rather than protecting from it. So that isn’t straightforward to navigate.
And then once you do that, you can then run what’s called phase two and phase three trials, where you basically try to test efficacy. Does it actually protect you from the infection? Trials can take quite a while, because you have to maybe follow up for quite a long time to see how much protective effect you’re really getting. I think there was a recent proposal by Lipsitch, Eyal, Smith: which is you might be able to say sometime if instead of doing the typical way we do it, which I described just now, you do what’s called a challenge study, which is sort of what you do, as it were, safety and efficacy studies at once on a population.
So, this essentially means you give someone a vaccine, and then you give them the agent which causes the infection on a sort of RCT basis and see if it actually does work. Obviously, the ethics issues around that are very fraught, which they cover in their paper, which might be worth having a link. But maybe something worth contemplating in terms of maybe saving you some time. And we do see vaccine challenge studies done in some contexts. I know there’s one for malaria. There’s been other ones as well.

What can you do personally?

So typical recommendations to give everyone would very much be good citizenship norms of what typical governments are also recommending people do. And so these are maybe not in good order at the moment but it’s like, “Wash your hands regularly before having food, before going out, before coming back. Generally, if in doubt, wash your hands”. There’s a 20 second recommendation. There’s also a six stage hand washing technique you can look up if you really like. There’s also the respiratory hygiene issue of “Please don’t cough into your hands but cough into a tissue or, if worst comes to worst, inside your elbow or something”.
When it used to be relevant there was obviously “Please isolate yourself if you think you might be unwell, and don’t come into work when you’re sick”. Obviously now in many countries, including my own, the key recommendation is essentially this, which is to avoid all nonessential travel and avoid all nonessential contact with others. And the more people who do this, I’ll expect the better things will be. So I struggle to emphasize it enough in terms of doing all of those things. Now, in terms of particular ways to help, I know 80K published,… Well a couple of days from me saying this, a post on if you’re mired to help, what you can do. I don’t have many obvious additions to this list. In terms of the question of whether rather than what, I would maybe strike some note of caution for a few reasons.
One is that this is probably now maybe the least neglected topic on the planet at the moment, and so the window for having a really outsized impact, like being early, is closed. And this reason may be the case that folks that have prior knowledge or expertise in certain areas, there may not be very good things that they can do to contribute versus what they will be doing otherwise. Because there are still many other problems in the world unfortunately besides COVID-19, and those problems haven’t gone away. And so whether to switch from one to the other is uncertain. It’s also something I’m somewhat grappling with myself as I discussed earlier. So maybe, but maybe not and maybe less so if you don’t have a relevant background which would make you well positioned to contribute would be my best guess.

Global catastrophic biological risks

By any commonsense definition of the term COVID-19 is a global catastrophe, but what we tend to have in mind when we talk about these things are events of such large magnitude that they place the long-term trajectory of humankind in peril. There are a few different definitions of what GCRs are. That’s one. Open Phil’s one talks about how it could globally destabilize enough to permanently worsen humanity’s future or lead to human extinction and you get things along these lines. So it’d have to be like extremely, extremely bad events. And so I don’t think any pandemic in human history has ever really got to that sort of level.
So things like the Black Death, or 1918 influenza or things like the Justinian plague I also don’t think other major current health crises at the moment would also count as these sorts of risks. So, for example, I don’t think antimicrobial resistance is a GCBR, nor HIV/AIDS and so on and so on and so forth. None of which is meant to say these things are trivial or they aren’t important or anything along those lines. But it’s to sort of give a sense of what I have in mind, is events of a greatly different order to these undoubtedly extremely severe threats to global health. And so given COVID-19 falls in this set of very severe threats, it nonetheless doesn’t rise to the level of a threat to human civilization, which I guess you can consider reassuring, although it’s obviously not much for reassurance.

Accidental vs. deliberate misuse of biotechnology

We haven’t really seen many events which have been human caused which are similarly bad to naturally arising events like the typical death toll from scientific accidents or by terrorist attacks or anything else. It’s comfortably less than most other infectious diseases at any given year. So you’re often trying to weigh up within this, which seems risky given the lack of a track record.
And there’s also, I guess, another annoying philosopher’s point whereby the distinction between accidental and deliberate isn’t perfectly crisp. So you can imagine a Dr. Strangelove scenario where someone deliberately makes something very nasty but then another agent uses it without authorization: so it’s the unauthorized use of something that’s deliberately made, but that’s somewhat an accident by light of the person who made it in the first place. Or there could be a thing whereby someone makes something very nasty and accidentally deploys that without intending to. Which again there’s this mix between… Well, you’re deliberately making something very bad, but you weren’t deliberately like releasing it to cause harm. So that’s like a small point. But in terms of the general sketch. One expectation, well hopefully one expectation is, there are more people who are well-intentioned than badly intentioned, so maybe there’s a higher rate of people who have good intentions who then make mistakes versus people with bad intentions doing these deliberately.
That being said, if you’re trying to cause a very, very bad thing to happen, you’re probably more likely to achieve it. Trying to do it deliberately rather than doing so by accident. But all of this is deeply uncertain. The evidence I’ll offer in favor is conjecture: is if you look at other things in terms of single event casualty counts. Maybe one comparison would be, for example, motor vehicle accidents. So most of those happen by accident, and there are far more accidental deaths from cars, roughly speaking, than people deliberately using cars kill each other. But if you look at something like the largest casualty events involving a car or indeed a plane or other things, you see that most of these are from deliberate acts of misuse. So unfortunately, vehicle ramming attacks, for example, tend to have a much higher average death toll than the typical car accident, even though there’s many more car accidents.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

80,000 Hours Annual Review – December 2019

80,000 Hours work on COVID-19

  1. Landing page with all our COVID-related research and links to the top resources we’ve found

  2. Good news about COVID-19 (our most viral article in a few years)

  3. COVID-19 essential facts and figures

  4. How to best overcome COVID-19 through work and volunteering

  5. Top donation options

  6. List of 200 specific job vacancies, volunteering opportunities & funding sources

  7. The 12 best policy steps to stop pandemics including this one (podcast)

  8. The case for and against attempting suppression

  9. Howie and Rob explain the coronavirus crisis (podcast)

  10. Introduction to Greg’s problem profile on reducing catastrophic biological risks more generally

Greg’s work

Everything else

Related episodes

About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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