Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems, what you can do to solve them, and whether I’d be willing to give up Happy Meals to get rid of biological weapons. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
We’ve been talking about global catastrophic biological risks since our 4th episode back in 2017, and have had a lot more to say about preventing pandemics since, you know, we’ve actually been in a pandemic.
But to date something we’ve only talked about in passing are concrete policy changes that would actually help to reduce the worst biological risks specifically, rather than just control normal emerging respiratory diseases.
That’s why I was delighted to speak with Jaime Yassif, who is one of the sharpest and most spirited people in the world working on this question. She used to be a Program Officer at Open Philanthropy and is now a senior fellow focused on biological weapons control at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
One thing I really valued about this interview was finally getting a bit more of a nuts and bolts sense of how international organizations work and where they might actually be useful.
I have to admit when people start talking about the WHO, UN agencies, arms control conventions and so on, I don’t feel like I have enough context about the actors or their motivations to tell what’s valuable, or know where listeners might be able to slot in there and make a difference. But after hearing from Jamie I feel a bit less adrift, and I hope that understanding will have some crossover value when I’m thinking about other policy areas.
We focus on a coherent set of policy proposals that aim to:
- Firstly, make it a lot harder for non-state actors to deliberately or accidentally produce a really dangerous pathogen
- And secondly, to ensure states really don’t want to do dangerous experiments or operate bioweapons programmes.
We also talk about:
- How the Biological Weapons Convention ended up without much funding or an enforcement mechanism
- Why Jaime focuses on prevention rather than response
- Jaime’s disagreements with the effective altruism community
This might all sound pretty serious, but Jaime is one of those people who is never dull to talk to.
If you think you might be interested in dedicating your career to reducing global catastrophic biological risks, stick around to the end of the episode to get Jaime’s advice — including on how people outside of the US can best contribute, and how to weigh up roles in academia vs think tanks, vs nonprofits, vs national governments and vs international orgs.
All right, without further ado, I bring you Jaime Yassif.
The interview begins [00:02:32]
Rob Wiblin: Today I’m speaking with Jaime Yassif. Jaime is a senior fellow for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), with a particular focus on reducing global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs) and strengthening governance of bioscience and biotechnology. Prior to this, Jaime served as a program officer at the Open Philanthropy Project, where she recommended approximately $40 million worth of grants focused on biosecurity and pandemic preparedness. Before all that, she completed a biophysics PhD at UC Berkeley and was a science and technology policy advisor at the US Department of Defense. So thanks so much for coming on the podcast, Jaime.
Jaime Yassif: Thanks so much, Rob. It’s great to be here and I’m really excited to chat with you about reducing global catastrophic biological risks.
Rob Wiblin: I hope we’ll get to talk about how we can motivate countries to take appropriate care around global catastrophic biological risks. But first, what are you working on at the moment, and why do you think it’s important?
Jaime Yassif: Great. Something I wanted to share at the top is just a project that we at NTI are really excited about: we’re working to develop a new international organization or entity that’s dedicated to biosecurity and to strengthening governance of bioscience and biotechnology research and development.
Jaime Yassif: The reason that we’re really interested in this space is we think this work can meaningfully reduce two really important risks that are closely tied to GCBRs. One of them is deliberate attacks with engineered pathogens by malicious actors, and one of them is an accidental release with an engineered pathogen with catastrophic consequences on a global scale. So we’re really focused on reducing those risks. And if you believe that engineered pathogens are more likely to cause a GCBR than perhaps a naturally emerging pathogen, I think that’s a compelling reason to really focus on this space.
Jaime Yassif: I know we’re going to get into it in more detail later, but I’ll just tell you at a very high level that the way that we’re envisioning this organization is that its mission is going to be fairly broad. It’s going to be focused on promoting stronger global norms for biosecurity across the board, and to develop tools and systems to incentivize and make it easier to adhere to those norms — meaningful, tractable ways to concretely reduce risk. So there’s a lot of work to be done there and we’re excited about it. And we’ll talk about it a bit more later in the interview.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I think our regular listeners will be familiar with some of the threats that we face, but we’ll give a quick primer on them again later on. So you mentioned you’re trying to start a new international organization. Is this a nonprofit, or some kind of new UN agency or something like that?
Jaime Yassif: The way that we envision this organization is it would be an independent organization. It would be nonprofit, so that it can be agile and innovative, work closely with all the key stakeholders, and keep up with rapid advances in science and technology. But importantly, in order to have legitimacy and be effective, it would work really closely with the UN System, including key parts of the World Health Organization and key parts of the UN that are associated with the Biological Weapons Convention.
Categories of global catastrophic biological risks [00:05:24]
Rob Wiblin: In terms of global catastrophic biological risks, you can cut it up into a couple of different categories. I suppose one is active military bioweapons programs. Another one might be accidental releases of something dangerous from legitimate scientific research labs. And I guess the third category is just natural pandemics that happen to be extremely bad. How does the magnitude of the risk across these things compare, do you think, and which one are you guys focused on primarily?
Jaime Yassif: Absolutely. I think your description of the three buckets is roughly right. There are deliberate risks that could come from either state actors or non-state actors. There is accidental release that could come from a wide variety of sources. And then there are naturally emerging infectious disease outbreaks and pandemics. I think a lot of different people in the community have speculated about which pose a greater threat and which is most likely to pose a global catastrophic biological risk. And we don’t have enough evidence to say definitively that we know it’s A and not B or vice versa.
Jaime Yassif: I think the argument within parts of the biosecurity community and parts of the effective altruism community that I identify with is that engineered pathogens pose a more significant risk from a GCBR perspective than perhaps naturally emerging infectious diseases, at least in the long term. They’re much more likely to cause a global catastrophic biological risk, in my view.
Jaime Yassif: And therefore, we should really focus on the kinds of pandemics that can be caused by human activity — either a deliberate attack or an accidental release of a pathogen that has been engineered in a laboratory. And in fact, at NTI, our bio team is working to reduce risks across the board, but we’re primarily focused on reducing deliberate and accidental release risks. That’s where we feel that we have a comparative advantage.
Rob Wiblin: I guess that makes a lot of sense, given that the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s background is working on nuclear nonproliferation and control and weapons issues. So I suppose it’s natural for you to take on the issue of bioweapons, and other irresponsible production of dangerous material.
Jaime Yassif: I think that’s close to how we would view it at NTI. We view our mission as reducing catastrophic risks to humanity that could imperil our long-term future, and that could come from nuclear or biological sources. We don’t necessarily have a bias towards human-caused events, but we want to address the risks that we believe are most significant to the long-term future of humanity, so we can build a safer world. And so we’re very strategic about how we prioritize our time and our efforts.
Disagreements with the effective altruism community [00:07:39]
Rob Wiblin: We’ve got a lot of listeners who are in some way involved with the effective altruism community. What do you think that broader group, like the listeners to the show or perhaps me, are most likely to get wrong about global catastrophic biological risks?
Jaime Yassif: There are a couple areas where I feel like I’ve had spirited debates with my very smart colleagues in the effective altruism community. And I have a lot of respect for the EA community. I really appreciate how rigorous people are when they think about these problem sets. And I think they’ve really challenged our community to think harder about how we prioritize our efforts and how we can really most meaningfully address catastrophic biological risks. So first of all, I want to give credit where credit is due.
Jaime Yassif: But I will say that I think where we’ve had differences of opinion are two key areas. One phenomenon I’ve noticed in the effective altruism community is that sometimes people like to identify one big thing that could happen that is the most important thing, and it’ll be 1,000 or 100 times more effective than anything else you could do. And I think there’s a desire for us to identify what that is in biosecurity and dedicate a vast majority of our resources and time to that one thing.
Jaime Yassif: And I am skeptical of that approach, personally. There is a chance that maybe as we look back, there may have been things that we have done that were more effective at reducing risks, but a priori I think it’s very difficult to tell. And I think it’s really important to have a layered defense that has multiple theories of risk reduction. I don’t believe that there’s one silver bullet.
Jaime Yassif: Related to that, something that I consider to be an open question is, what is the greatest source of global catastrophic biological risks? Should we be worried more about states or non-state actors? I’m concerned about both. In the long term, it’s not obvious to me that we should focus exclusively on one or the other. I think both are significant risks, and we shouldn’t ignore non-state actors, for example. I think some folks in the community think that states are a greater risk.
Jaime Yassif: And then the third thing I would add is that sometimes I notice in the EA community there’s a real excitement about finding technology solutions to problems. And I think technology solutions are fabulous and a really important tool. And sometimes they’re very attractive because it’s easier — you don’t have to build broad coalitions to support tech. You just develop the technology —
Rob Wiblin: Fewer conversations.
Jaime Yassif: There are aspects of that that I personally find appealing. But I would stress that you can’t solve all the problems with technology and you do have to work with people and institutions sometimes. And even though that’s messy, sometimes you’ve got to do the hard work to drive institutional change, to really have sustainable solutions. So those are some of the ongoing conversations that we’re having about areas where we don’t necessarily agree.
Rob Wiblin: Something I noticed preparing for this interview is that it seems like the conclusion is that there isn’t a silver bullet here. Instead, you just need to layer a bunch of different risk reduction methods on top of one another, and each one maybe halves the risk, and then collectively, they’ve made a really huge difference.
Rob Wiblin: I had this vague sense that in the past, people might have gotten a bit stuck by the search for the silver bullet — they couldn’t find anything that would by itself solve the problem, or even solve the problem 90% or anything like that. And so then they were like, “Well, I guess we should just keep on researching and trying to find something.” But maybe the way forward is instead this approach of having five or 10 different things that you do, each of which reduces the risk more like 50%, or perhaps 30%.
Jaime Yassif: I think that’s basically right. And in defense of the effective altruism community, I don’t think this community is the only community that has fallen into that mode of thought. In recent years and recent decades, as our community has struggled to find really effective ways to reduce risks and threats in the bio space — anytime you come up with any solution, people can poke holes in it. And it’s very tempting to say, “Oh, well, it’s not a 100% solution” or “There are big holes in it and therefore that’s not an answer and we should drop it.”
Jaime Yassif: I think that’s a mistake. Having tried to develop multiple solutions and continuing to go through that pattern, I’ve decided that just because something has holes or it doesn’t reduce the risk by 100% doesn’t mean we should drop it. And then in terms of this layered defense, I absolutely believe that that’s the way to go.
Jaime Yassif: When I was working at Open Phil as a program officer, we had a conversation that I thought was a really helpful way to talk about it in simple terms, which is: you find all the biggest holes in the system, and you try to plug the biggest holes first. So I’m not making an argument that we shouldn’t prioritize. We absolutely should, and there are a priori ways to figure out what are more and less impactful things we can do. But I think we shouldn’t reduce the list down to one or two actions. It should be a longer list.
Stopping the first person from getting infected [00:11:51]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Makes sense. Broadly speaking, you could split trying to stop catastrophic pandemics into two different approaches. One would be to stop the first person getting infected at all. And then another approach is trying to stop the pandemic from spreading from that point — so trying to detect the pandemic early and then contain it or come up with treatments really quickly. It sounds like you’re basically focused on the first one — stopping the first person from getting infected. Why focus on that stage?
Jaime Yassif: First of all, I believe that again — keeping with my layered defense mantra here — I think prevention, detection, response are all critical elements. And I think for the world to be safer from pandemics and global catastrophic biological risks, we need to do all three. I think we need a division of labor in the community. I think others in the community are doing a lot of great work on early detection and response.
Jaime Yassif: Our bio team at NTI is engaged in some efforts that are related to early detection and response, including our Global Health Security Index — where we’ve done an assessment of 195 countries and looked at their pandemic preparedness capabilities across the board, and tried to draw attention to the need to fill those gaps. So we really believe in the full spectrum of activities, and we are, in fact, working on them.
Jaime Yassif: The work that I personally as an individual am engaged in is more focused at the moment on prevention. But that’s just because I see really big gaps in the area — I think it’s more of a neglected area than some of the other areas. And so I think the marginal impact that I individually can have on the space is greater by working on prevention, though it is a challenging area to work.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Just briefly on the containment side of things, I don’t know whether you’ve heard the Andy Weber interview that we did earlier in the year. Or possibly you’ve heard his opinions elsewhere, because I think he tends to talk about them quite a lot. But he has this proposal for containing potential GCBRs, where I guess you try to get DNA sequencing all over the place so that we can detect any new biological threats really quickly.
Rob Wiblin: And then he thinks we should have a system for very rapidly developing new mRNA vaccines against any new pathogens, which is really great because mRNA vaccines are kind of a platform that you can quickly adapt to new pathogens. And then also have in mind a system for really quickly vaccinating the whole world against any new pathogen with these vaccines that we hopefully develop within weeks or months. Do you have any thoughts on that? Is that something that excites you, even though it’s perhaps not as much within your wheelhouse?
Jaime Yassif: First of all, I used to work for Andy Weber. Back when I worked at the Department of Defense in government, he was an Assistant Secretary and I worked for him and his team at the Department of Defense. I’m a huge fan of Andy Weber and his work, and we’re really lucky to have him in the field. So I’ll just start with that.
Jaime Yassif: Second, I’ll say that I totally agree with the ideas that he is advocating for, and that we should absolutely invest in those capabilities. I think early detection and building a more robust biosurveillance system nationally and globally — and one that includes sequencing — would be incredibly valuable for early detection for the reasons that you state. If we can contain pandemics before they turn into pandemics early, that’s a huge gain in terms of risk reduction.
Jaime Yassif: Likewise, I’m a huge fan of platform technologies for medical countermeasure development, and mRNA technology is the leading technology that’s most advanced and most promising at the moment. There may be other technologies that become an option in the future, and we should consider those as well. The days are gone where we think about one bug and one drug, and then we stockpile vaccines for known pathogens. If we want to look to the future and reduce risks meaningfully, we have to be prepared for a surprise. So a platform technology that can respond in an agile way to quickly develop a new medical countermeasure in response to a new threat is absolutely the way that we need to go. We should pour lots of resources into it.
Jaime Yassif: However, like any system that we develop to reduce risks, there are going to be failure modes. And that is just a feature of this space. And so we absolutely should do all those things and we should also do prevention as well. We should not have a single point of failure. If this is really part of a shared global effort to safeguard the future of humanity, we need to intervene at every point possible — prevention, detection, and response — to reduce the risk as close to zero as we can that we would face something catastrophic from a biological release in the future.
Jaime Yassif: So I’m really grateful that Andy’s working on those issues, and would love to see those things come to pass, in addition to all the other ideas that we’ll be talking about today.
Shaping intent [00:15:51]
Rob Wiblin: All right. So on that note, let’s push into the meat of the Nuclear Threat Initiative agenda on GCBRs. At a high level, NTI’s work to prevent GCBRs I think you can see it as broken down into two parts, which you call “constraining capabilities” and “shaping intent.”
Rob Wiblin: Constraining capabilities is focused on limiting what dangerous things malicious actors like rogue groups are able to do by exploiting legitimate academic research science or the work that’s coming out of biotech companies. And we’ll come back and deal with that stream later on in the conversation.
Rob Wiblin: But I actually want to start with this idea of shaping intent, because I think it’s super interesting. The basic idea here is that if a powerful or well-resourced country wants to do some dangerous thing with novel bioscience, then in your view — and I think by my view as well — there’s not a whole lot we can do to stop them from being able to buy the equipment or hire people to pursue that idea, if they’re really committed to it. Maybe we could slow them down a little bit, but that doesn’t really get us where we want to be, which is really discouraging that dangerous kind of activity by states.
Rob Wiblin: And that means that instead we need to focus on this other approach, which in short, is making states not want to do dangerous experiments or run bioweapons programs. Because if a country thinks it’s clearly not in their interests to do so, then they probably won’t do it and that will be good. What’s the key mechanism we have for shaping the intent or motivations of states and other big actors whose capabilities are hard to constrain?
Jaime Yassif: Absolutely. So I want to start by just explaining why a rational country, or perhaps an irrational country sometimes, might decide to pursue a biological weapons program or even use a biological weapon. So I think that there are two sets of motivations — or three, actually — that we should really be thinking about when we’re trying to shape intent.
Jaime Yassif: One of them is just fear of what their adversary might be up to. So recognizing that right now, there’s not as much transparency among states about what is going on with regard to biodefense and bioscience and biotechnology development. There is a risk that there could be misperceptions, that there could be escalating suspicion, and that could lead to an undesirable future where you have arms racing behavior.
Jaime Yassif: So that’s a future we really want to avoid. And a way that you address that is through increased transparency. Transparency is helpful in the sense that if, in fact, the vast majority of states aren’t in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, that would just help clarify that. And to the extent that transparency could actually bring to light where there are violations, that’s also information we want to know.
Jaime Yassif: On the other hand, I think there’s another set of motives. Let’s assume a country isn’t necessarily being driven by fear, but they think that they have some sort of strategic or tactical advantage for having a biological weapon, and there may be some instances where they could get away with something. That they could launch an attack — maybe in a targeted way, maybe in a way that’s clandestine.
Jaime Yassif: And because current international tools for attribution and accountability are not, in my view, what they should be, they might not get caught. Or if they are suspected of doing something, that they wouldn’t be held accountable and they could get away with it. And I think that we need to change that to the extent that that’s true. There are a lot of tools and systems we can build up in the international community to strengthen deterrence regarding bioweapon development and use.
Jaime Yassif: I do want to also note that a lot of the times when you think about shaping intent, it’s assuming rational action. Sometimes institutions do have irrational behavior, and there’s some historical evidence of this. Even if at the highest levels governments don’t want to develop a bioweapons program, there might be strange activities within large bureaucracies — if there are weird institutional drivers for an individual scientist or for an individual institution seeking budgets to push in a certain —
Rob Wiblin: Or a company?
Jaime Yassif: Company less so. I think that is a different set of incentives. And I still think that a lot of the bigger-picture ideas we’re focused on in terms of shaping rational decision-making could address those motives as well. But those are the three paths in my view that you can imagine getting to a bioweapon development program. And I believe that it’s plausible that effective action in this space to build stronger institutions and capabilities could dissuade a country from seeking to develop a new program or explore new research that crosses the line.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So I guess if a country is rational, then making it more likely that their violation of the Biological Weapons Convention would be detected and they would face some negative consequence, that should make them less likely to want to pursue it. Even a country that’s irrational, if they’re pursuing a bioweapons program — in a sense, foolishly or against their own interests — I suppose just piling on the probability of detection and the scale of the consequences they might face still might push them over the line, even if they’re not assessing things completely rationally.
Rob Wiblin: You’ve raised this issue of a potential arms race with biological weapons and our past guests have raised that as well. But I’m just imagining that scenario, where country A and country B do not have amicable relations, and A suspects that B has a biological weapons program — would A really benefit that much from establishing their own bioweapons program? How does that really help them to defend themselves? They could just invest in all kinds of other military stuff that isn’t related to bioweapons programs. I guess I’m not quite understanding how it exactly assists them in the arms race situation.
Jaime Yassif: Sure. I think that’s a fair question. And I’m certainly not trying to justify the development of biological weapons or encourage any state to seriously consider it — that’s definitely not my position, just to be very clear. But I think if you want to really understand where the rationale might come from, I think some people are concerned that bioweapons could be viewed as an asymmetric weapon.
Jaime Yassif: So if you’re a superpower and you’ve got lots of resources, then it’s easy to build up very strong conventional capabilities that are very effective in deterring adversaries from attacking you, and actually can be used in warfare. And there’s no moral or humanitarian norm against using conventional weapons. But those are expensive and hard to develop, and having an edge in conventional terms is hard.
Jaime Yassif: A nuclear weapon is an asymmetric weapon. And there have been some discussions about how that dynamic works, and we need to work to disincentivize development of nuclear weapons. But I would say the threshold for developing a biological weapon is even lower, because dual-use bioscience and biotechnology, knowledge, tools, resources — they’re widely distributed. And so there’s just a lower barrier to entry, so you could imagine a country saying, “Well, I can develop this asymmetric weapon at lower cost, and it’s more accessible to me than these other means of military dominance or deterrence.”
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Before we turn to the new ideas for deterrence, maybe let’s talk about the things that we already have. A lot of people will know that the US in the past has used military force against countries that they suspect, or purportedly suspect, of having biological or chemical weapons. Famously, Saddam Hussein in the 90s and then again in 2003, and the threat of force was used against Syria throughout the 2010s regarding their potential chemical weapons. To what extent can the problem of bioweapons be solved this way?
Jaime Yassif: I know the US has played this role in the past. And I guess I would say I wouldn’t want to build an entire international arms control regime based on an assumption that the US is going to police the global order. I don’t think it’s a reliable approach. I think it’s a very last resort, and fundamentally, it’s not always legitimate in the eyes of the international community and it’s messy — it involves conflict and a lot of innocent people that die on both sides.
Jaime Yassif: By the time you get to that point, there’s a lot of cost. And so I think we are much safer if we can get upstream of this and just prevent countries from exploring this in the first place — and not get to a point where weapons development or production may have commenced, and we’re trying to bomb it out of existence. I think that’s a really tough place to be, and it’s not a theory of change that I think is…
Rob Wiblin: Ideal.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. Nor is it really… You know, a lot of countries around the world don’t find that to be a legitimate international tool.
Rob Wiblin: To what extent then might we be able to rely on robust biosecurity intelligence capabilities to be able to detect any bioweapons programs that the country might be initiating?
Jaime Yassif: I want to step back for a second and discuss the big picture of what I think is the positive case for what we can do to shape intentions. And then I’m happy to talk about intelligence.
Jaime Yassif: My recipe for more robust systems is that we need more effective transparency for the reasons I said before, which is to reduce the risks of arms racing and reduce the risks of misperceptions that could lead to arms racing. And people have talked about that in the past as verification. I think that verification is a complicated word with a long history — and we can unpack that in a few minutes if you’d like — but I think that there’s work to be done there.
Jaime Yassif: The second piece is, I think we need more effective means of investigating the origins of a high-consequence biological event if and when it does occur, so that there is an internationally legitimate, evidence-based, transparent process to actually effectively run that to ground, and fairly quickly. That’s important. I would argue that we don’t really have the full suite of capabilities that we need to get there, and we have a lot of work to do there too, and I see an opportunity.
Jaime Yassif: The third piece is accountability. If we are in fact able to reliably attribute the source of an attack or an event to either a state or a non-state actor, they should be held accountable in ways that would actually be meaningful. That’s hard, but I do think it’s necessary.
Jaime Yassif: So I just wanted to paint a big picture. In addition to all those things I said, in terms of trying to get upstream of risks and anticipating them early before they’re fully present, if we want to really be effective at preventing high-consequence biological events, we as an international community should get better at anticipating threats. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for governments and countries around the world to invest more in intelligence gathering for biosecurity threats — to see if other states or non-state actors might be interested in developing biological weapons, or if they’re actively engaged in those pursuits. We should get better at detecting that early and really dedicate more resources. I think there’s a lot of value in that.
Verification and the Biological Weapons Convention [00:25:34]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So you mentioned verification. I guess famously the Biological Weapons Convention doesn’t really have a verification or any enforcement mechanism, and it only has about three staff or something like that. Why that’s the case is an interesting story that you put me onto when I was preparing for the interview. Your focus isn’t history here, but it’s relevant because there was this big push to add a verification mechanism in the 90s — which ended up not panning out, which I guess we need to learn from. What was the setup there?
Jaime Yassif: Absolutely. Yeah, so as you point out, the BWC doesn’t have a verification regime. It also lacks a large institution to support it: the only support it has institutionally is a three-person [Implementation Support Unit(https://www.un.org/disarmament/biological-weapons/implementation-support-unit). Its annual budget is $1.5 million a year. Some of our friends in the effective altruism community have pointed out that that’s roughly the cost of running one McDonald’s restaurant in a franchise for a year — which is just not the right level of spending in my view and in many people’s view for this really important global institution.
Rob Wiblin: Seems like it’s doing more important work.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. I would argue the case for that is pretty clear. But in terms of the verification piece, there was a very vigorous attempt made in the 90s — there were a series of measures that were part of the process in the 90s to try to develop a verification mechanism. Back in 1991 at the BWC Review Conference, the States Parties agreed to establish something called VEREX, which was tasked with preparing a technical report on the feasibility of potential verification measures, recognizing, “Hey, there have been some advances in bioscience and biotechnology. It’s the ’90s, and what can we do that’s different than what we might have been able to do before?”
Jaime Yassif: And then a few years later, in 1994, as part of a special conference in Geneva I believe, the States Parties established something called an Ad Hoc Group. And that actually had a mandate to negotiate a verification protocol. That was a big deal at the time. And so over the next seven or eight years, the States Parties to the BWC undertook serious efforts to negotiate what that agreement might look like.
Rob Wiblin: And this included how many countries? Is this every signatory to the BWC, which is almost 200?
Jaime Yassif: That’s right. All the States Parties at the time. There were fewer at that time than there are now, but —
Rob Wiblin: Still a handful.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. Roughly, I think 170 or 180, I would guess at the time, States Parties to the BWC — a very large group. I’ll tell you what the punchline was at the end game and then I’ll back up and tell you why this didn’t work out. So at the end of the day, in 2001, the chairman of the BWC meeting had this compromise text, and it basically captured all the different positions and the open questions associated with the negotiation. It was a text that the States Parties were going to try to refine to come to an agreement.
Jaime Yassif: What happened is basically the United States government walked away from the negotiations. They withdrew their support from this text and this process. And I think a lot of people will show up at meetings and say, “Oh, well, the United States is the reason that this didn’t happen and they’re to blame.” And I think that that’s facile and I don’t think it’s fully accurate, and it’s much more complicated than that — it kind of gets into the politics of the BWC as an institutional body and also the history of the discussions.
Rob Wiblin: So the proximate cause, the cause that was very visible to journalists, I guess, who hadn’t been following this closely was —
Jaime Yassif: And just political figures and countries around the world. It’s very convenient to blame the US, you know?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So there was John Bolton, right? This somewhat bellicose, somewhat aggressive US diplomatic figure under the Bush administration. They walked away from the table, said, “This is pointless, we’re out.” But there were far deeper reasons why they walked away, and probably it wouldn’t have made any difference if they’d stayed. Do you want to explain why?
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. I’m happy to unpack that. And I just want to make it clear that I’m not a historian, but this particular issue is really important to me. And my thinking about this topic is shaped by some writing done by Kenneth Ward. There’s a really great paper in The Nonproliferation Review that some folks might want to check out. It’s called “The BWC protocol mandate for failure.”
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s a cracker.
Jaime Yassif: It’s great. And I’ll readily acknowledge that it is very much a Western perspective and a US perspective, and I don’t agree with 100% of the things that he says. But I do think he makes some really compelling arguments about some of the underlying causes for why this fundamentally was a very weak process that was unlikely to succeed as it was constructed.
Rob Wiblin: Was he a negotiator in the process? Or just an observer?
Jaime Yassif: Yes, I believe that he was a negotiator in the process. So he participated, he viewed it up close, and he was associated with the US government. So obviously he’s not an unbiased observer, and so you can take his perspective with a grain of salt.
Jaime Yassif: But basically his argument, which I think sounds very plausible, is that… So something that’s important to understand generally about the BWC is it’s not almost 200 individual countries acting as individual actors. It’s broken into these three blocs that are really a historical artifact of the Cold War.
Jaime Yassif: You’ve got the Western group, which is comprised of Western countries — many of which are allied with the US — you’ve got Europe. You’ve got the Eastern bloc, which is a group that’s associated with the former Soviet Union and countries that are closely allied to them. And then you’ve got the Non-Aligned Movement, which is a lot of countries from the Global South, developing countries. And they all have slightly different interests, and those interests came forth in this discussion.
Jaime Yassif: So here were the challenges: the Non-Aligned Movement, fundamentally, as part of these protocol negotiations, they were really advocating for development assistance. They wanted to weaken some of the export controls, including the Australia Group, so they could have access to technology. Technology transfer is important to them, and they wanted also financial assistance to build their own capability —
Rob Wiblin: Biotech industries.
Jaime Yassif: Exactly, exactly. And so —
Rob Wiblin: What’s the Australia Group?
Jaime Yassif: The Australia Group is a group of like-minded countries, mostly Western, that have agreed upon export controls of key technologies that are associated with potential weapons of mass destruction. And so it constrains the export of certain knowledge or goods to certain countries that could otherwise lead to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Rob Wiblin: Some poorer countries, some developing countries, weren’t keen on this, because they saw it as limiting their scientific research development or their economic development. And so they wanted to see those kinds of export controls reduced and maybe even countries like Australia or the US paying to build a biotech R&D industry or sector within their countries.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. So they’re emphasizing economic development assistance and weakening of certain export controls as part of their positioning in the context of these discussions. And so that was what they were pushing for, which was viewed by others as a threat to the nonproliferation regime and could actually exacerbate proliferation and weaken the BWC overall. And so that was a dynamic that was underway.
Jaime Yassif: And there were some other countries that had other agendas. I’m not going to name names. But there were certain countries that were trying to create a list-based approach to what is considered a biological threat, instead of having a general-purpose criterion and saying, “If you have intention to weaponize this, it’s already crossing the line.” Redefining what it means to violate the BWC to a list-based approach, where you basically define “Within these quantities and these categories of pathogens, this is a violation” — and therefore implicitly things that fall outside this specific list have what it was perceived to be a quote unquote “safe harbor.” And so again, to some other countries, including in the West, there was a concern that this could create big holes in the BWC in terms of what is considered a violation, which could undermine the Convention.
Jaime Yassif: And then a third thing is… Part of what would be an effective verification mechanism would include challenge inspections — that’s commonly found in other regimes. So some countries were trying to weaken the challenge inspections provisions by saying they would have to pass through the UN Security Council, in which certain countries have veto power. So all of these things were viewed by others as really weakening what was possible, and weakening the BWC, and untenable.
Jaime Yassif: And so there were a lot of big open questions about which countries weren’t able to reach agreement. Not to mention the fact that even within the Western group, there wasn’t full agreement about the extent and scope of what this verification regime would look like. It was a really challenging negotiation, and really entrenched positions in different political groupings. It wasn’t clear that they were ever going to arrive at some sort of consensus statement about what was going to work that was going to be meaningfully strengthening BWC instead of weakening it.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So the Biological Weapons Convention operates on consensus. So every country that’s party to it, in order to change it, would have to agree to change the rules, right?
Jaime Yassif: That’s right, the BWC is a consensus-based decision-making body. And so it is in fact very challenging to agree on big changes with that kind of approach.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. So you need a consensus, and as you’ve laid out, there were different priorities — definitely competing priorities — between the different countries. It kind of surprises me that people spent seven or eight years trying to reach consensus when it seems like it might have become apparent fairly quickly that that was never going to happen.
Jaime Yassif: I don’t think everyone shared the view that it wasn’t going to happen. I mean, I’ve spoken with people about the plausibility of revisiting the question of verification or thinking about it in a new light — refreshing the conversation. People who were involved in those negotiations… I think some of them believed that the solution was in sight and they just needed more time and more political space. I’m not in the minds of the people who were involved in those negotiations, and I certainly wasn’t there at the time, but I believe that the people who were engaged in it in earnest genuinely had faith that a solution was within reach.
Jaime Yassif: And I do believe generally — notwithstanding how challenging it can be to advance progress within a consensus-based decision-making body — I think that if you can get enough of these divergent political groups to align their interests… I mean, we do have a lot of shared interest in building a safer world. We do have a lot of common interests. I can imagine a future where this body could really change its political dynamics and be more constructive and make progress with a consensus-based decision-making process.
Jaime Yassif: But the current political blockings and the current dynamics are just not conducive, and we need to have a radically different environment. And that’s going to take a lot of smart young people who are energized and participating from a lot of different countries with a different view that really are earnestly trying to tackle this issue. And I’m hoping that members of the effective altruism community can help us be part of that solution.
Rob Wiblin: So most countries care about bioweapons control to some greater or lesser degree, but it seems like the great majority don’t care about it as much as you and I do. What do you think is the main reason for that?
Jaime Yassif: I think there are a couple things going on here. One of them is that a lot of countries very legitimately are focused on reducing the risks posed by naturally occurring infectious disease outbreaks and pandemics. Because they’re facing those risks every day, it is a drain on their economy, it’s a drain on their workforce, and it kills their publics. And so that’s what’s in front of them now and they need help with that now. And I think that is a totally understandable position.
Jaime Yassif: A lot of Western countries or countries with a lot of money don’t have to deal with that as much, because we just have more resources to have public health and sanitation. But other places are really struggling, and I think it’s totally understandable and valid for them to be focused on the issues that are really pressing for them. We really need to be cognizant of that and sympathetic to that if we’re going to work together with those countries to build a safer world. We have to understand their perspective.
Jaime Yassif: As part of that, there are also just different threat perceptions. I think a lot of countries view deliberate biothreats as a problem of the US or a problem of the West — as an invented problem that’s not as significant in their minds as we view it in the West. And so it’s just different threat perceptions.
Jaime Yassif: I think part of that is also that they don’t have as advanced bioscience and biotechnology infrastructure, and they would like to have it. So for them a priority is developing that infrastructure — that’s step one. Step two is reducing the risk associated with it, but they want to have the infrastructure to begin with. So I think that there’s a lot going on. And part of this is just a North–South divide issue.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. So that’s a bunch about the verification and the Biological Weapons Convention. Let’s talk now about attribution, because I suppose a really important part of giving countries incentives not to do dangerous things is that we need to be able to identify after the fact who has done something wrong — like where a pathogen has come from, if it was caused by human action, so there can be some consequences. What mechanisms are there currently for attributing the sources of new diseases?
Jaime Yassif: There are two major tools that are in place right now. One of them resides within the World Health Organization, and the World Health Organization has a strong comparative advantage in investigating the origins of naturally emerging infectious disease outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics. The UN System also has the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism, which has the authority to investigate allegations of deliberate misuse of biological weapons, meaning bioweapons attacks.
Jaime Yassif: One thing I’ll say about WHO is in light of everything that’s been going on right now — the controversies about the origins of COVID — WHO has been working in earnest to make their capabilities more robust to deal with these edge cases where the origins are uncertain. And a lot of people in WHO would stress that the International Health Regulations, which provide them with their authorities, also give the authority to investigate origins of events that are not natural.
Jaime Yassif: I think that part of the issue there is a capabilities gap. The WHO even in recent weeks has been working very publicly to set up this new Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). And they recently announced the members of this advisory group, which are scientists from around the world. I think that’s great. I really applaud WHO’s efforts to expand the scope of their work in this area. I believe that this group will be advisory in nature, which is valuable.
Jaime Yassif: And I believe notwithstanding WHO’s valiant work to expand its capabilities, there’s still a gap between what WHO can do, what their capabilities are and could become in the near future, and what the Secretary-General’s Mechanism can do. What I mean by that is there’s an area in between where if there’s an allegation of an accident… So for example, the Secretary-General’s Mechanism’s authorities do not cover accidents — it’s only allegations of deliberate misuse. Or if you’re just not sure if it was a natural or deliberate or an accident, and you need to run it to ground — you’re not prepared to make an accusation and launch a Secretary-General’s Mechanism, but there’s enough evidence there that you think that something fishy might be going on.
Jaime Yassif: We don’t really have a robust tool right now to address those sorts of questions. So we started our work on this problem in the context of our work at NTI, long before the current controversies emerged. But I think the current challenges highlight this gap and the need to make the UN systems and capabilities more robust to address this in-between zone.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. So just to recap, we’ve got the World Health Organization, and historically their expertise — the thing they’ve done the most of — is investigating natural, new pandemics, where it’s come from an animal or something.
Rob Wiblin: And in principle, you’re saying the International Health Regulations allow them to investigate other things as well, like bioweapons or accidental lab leaks and so on, but at least to date that hasn’t been something that they’ve done very much. So we’re not sure how that would pan out. Then if a state accuses another state of using a bioweapon deliberately, then the Secretary-General of the UN can order an investigation into that.
Jaime Yassif: Correct.
Rob Wiblin: But this means there’s various gaps. So lab leaks — a pandemic where you’re not sure. Was it from a lab? Was it a weapon? Is it a natural pandemic? It’s not clear who’s exactly responsible for figuring that out. And whether anyone in particular could be called on has the expertise necessary to really investigate that and build a global consensus around it. So I guess that’s the main gap that we have. Or are there others as well?
Jaime Yassif: Yeah, that’s right. The way that you’ve characterized it is accurate. It’s not only that we haven’t identified who would be in charge, but also we haven’t identified a process that everyone agrees on for handling this. So that’s basically where we are today. And it’s abundantly clear in my view from the ongoing controversy and the struggles of various countries and the international community to find a clear answer to the question of the origins of COVID.
Rob Wiblin: What’s the potential solution to this, do you think?
Jaime Yassif: This is something that we have been working on at NTI | bio for a while. There’s a concept that we’re developing, which we’ve named the “Joint Assessment Mechanism.” “Joint,” because we think it would be working at the interface of WHO and the UN, and that it would live within the UN System. This would be part of international organizations that already exist — we’re thinking about creating a new mechanism, not a new organization.
Jaime Yassif: We think that it should be transparent. It should be internationally credible. It should be evidence-based and scientifically sound. I think a lot of the features of the Secretary-General’s Mechanism could be applicable here. We’d want a team of investigators that have the right technical expertise, as well as logistic support teams that could be deployed on short notice to wherever their effort is needed. We would need a laboratory network that could analyze samples, conduct analysis, and come to scientific conclusions. It would be defensible and credible in the eyes of the international community.
Jaime Yassif: We’d probably also want to think about when these earlier mechanisms were established, technology hadn’t evolved as much as it has today. And so there are a lot of modern bioscience, biotechnology, bioinformatics tools that we could bring to bear and think on this problem set, and think about whether or not those could help us uncover the truth — either through onsite collection of evidence or through assessment of data that can be collected remotely. There are a lot of questions about how you can bring these tools to bear, and we have a lot of technical work to figure out how to do that.
Jaime Yassif: The other piece here is figuring out where you house it. Would this sit within the UN? Where? Who would be in charge of it? How do you fund it sustainably? How do you make sure it works? How do you establish the authority? So there’s a ton of work to be done. We’re actively engaged in international conversations with partners to figure out the answers to those questions. And we’re really pushing to try to make this a reality, because we think it would be valuable.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. So I’m imagining that I’m a national leader of a country that for whatever reason is considering having a bioweapons program. Basically the problem is that at the moment, although I might worry that if something leaked from this lab and caused a global catastrophe — everyone might figure out that it was me and I’ll get in a huge amount of trouble — I could potentially reassure myself that looking at history, the investigation into where a new pathogen came from might be a real disaster. It might not be organized very well. And so there’s a good chance that no one will figure out that it originated from this country and was my fault. So that might make me more likely to initiate the research program in the first place.
Rob Wiblin: And to plug that gap, we want to create a new Joint Assessment Mechanism, where if we’re unsure where a new pathogen came from — and it’s possible that it’s the result of human action possibly violating the Biological Weapons Convention — then the right people can very promptly look into that and gather the evidence necessary to convince everyone one way or the other.
Rob Wiblin: I guess there’s various design elements that you’re going to have to choose in constructing how this Joint Assessment Mechanism is going to work. Like who triggers it? Do you need to prove anything in order to trigger it? Who chooses who goes onto the investigation committee? Presumably it would be quite contested at the time, as we’ve seen with investigations around COVID. It could be substantially worse if the pandemic was worse. How are you going about choosing those design parameters?
Jaime Yassif: I think you’ve raised some really important questions, and absolutely the design parameters of how this mechanism is established are going to be crucial to its success or to its failure — hopefully the former.
Jaime Yassif: In terms of triggering the mechanism, that is a critically important question and something that we’re thinking about very deeply as we work with our colleagues to shape this. We’ve got to set the bar at the right level. If we set the bar too high and the requirements for triggering it are too onerous, then there’s a risk that this mechanism might never be triggered, even in cases where it would be appropriate to do so or be useful — so we don’t want to have too onerous of a bureaucratic burden.
Jaime Yassif: On the other hand, you don’t want to set the bar too low. If it’s really easy to trigger this, the other failure mode is that you have frivolous investigations triggered for frivolous purposes or political purposes, and it undermines the credibility of it. And then it’s also not useful. So you really want to hit the sweet spot in the middle, and we’re working really hard to figure out what that is. And so that’s a really important question. We don’t have the answer yet, but I agree that that’s really critically important. We have some ideas and so we’ll tell you more when we know more.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess that’s the kind of detail that needs to be negotiated between concerned parties. You don’t want to come in with, “It has to be this way.”
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. That’s why we’re working with international partners. I mean, honestly, a lot of this work is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. By which I mean, you have idea generation and then you really have to build support for it. And so this is a classic example of that.
Jaime Yassif: And then in terms of the group of experts that get deployed, absolutely we’ve seen recently that that can be a politicized process. I think to the extent that you can define the rules and the experts in advance — so that you’re not making decisions during a crisis — the more likely it is you’ll be able to insulate the process from politics.
Jaime Yassif: So our vision is that you would have a roster of experts that would be determined during peacetime. They would need to be trained. They would need to be certified. They would need to take tests to prove that they’re competent. And that those people ideally would have to have the right scientific and technical skills. They have to understand how to do their jobs and what the standard operating procedures are, and they have to prove that on a periodic basis. And they have to be able to travel to the field in the event that that’s actually part of the process.
Jaime Yassif: If you have this roster of experts in place, in practice you already have a defined list of people from whom you have to choose. And then you can also have established criteria in advance. So you need X people with this set of expertise and Y people with that set of expertise, and you just define as much as you can a priori. So that while there inevitably will be political pressures, we’re hoping to remove some of that and insulate the process from some of that to make it more evidence-based and credible.
Rob Wiblin: Are there any other design choices that you’ve thought about that would have to be figured out if this were taken forward?
Jaime Yassif: I think where the mechanism would be housed is also really important. Our growing feeling is it would be a really good idea to place it under the authority of the Secretary-General. That’s linked to the ability to trigger it, because the Secretary-General has the authority to trigger the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism, and they are advised by a group of expert advisors. We as a group think that something similar in this case would be useful for a number of reasons. I’m not going to be able to get to all of them now, but one is we believe that that’s a good place for having the right threshold for triggering.
Jaime Yassif: Also, the UN Secretary-General sits in a very high-level position across the UN System and related organizations. And so they are in a position where they could pull together all sorts of different capabilities and resources across the UN System, which would be needed for this kind of process. And they’re in a good position to work with WHO, which is a critical player and has critical expertise. And also the UN Secretary-General just has a lot of credibility, a role that rises above the fray and can work in the best interests of the international community. So politically, it also just makes a lot of sense.
Jaime Yassif: So that’s where we are right now. It’s not set in stone, but that’s the direction we’re leaning, and we feel good about that direction and there’s support for it.
Rob Wiblin: You mentioned that, of course, there’s this existing Secretary-General’s Mechanism, which they can put into action if a country formally accuses another country of having used a bioweapon. As far as I know, that’s never been used for bioweapons, although it has been for chemical weapons.
Jaime Yassif: Correct.
Rob Wiblin: Should we have confidence that that process would be good if we ever were forced to use it?
Jaime Yassif: You mean the Secretary-General’s Mechanism specifically?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Jaime Yassif: I think we, as an international community, should be putting a lot more resources into the Secretary-General’s Mechanism to bolster its operational capabilities. Likewise, they have a roster of experts. They have a network of laboratories. They do run tests and exercises pretty regularly. I do think if tomorrow they were called upon to launch an investigation, they could do it.
Jaime Yassif: But I would have more confidence in their ability to do it if we put a lot more resources into that work. Right now, it’s supported through a variety of voluntary contributions from countries that think this is really important. My guess is we should probably multiply the amount of money that we put into this by five- to tenfold, and it should be a much higher priority. I have a lot of colleagues in the field who I think are doing really important work to strengthen the Secretary-General’s Mechanism. And I’m really grateful to them for the work that they’re doing, and I would love to support that more if I had more time.
Jaime Yassif: The other thing I would say is, generally speaking for these kinds of mechanisms — and this is true of the Joint Assessment Mechanism concept that we are working to develop as well — is that the more that you can regularly exercise and test the mechanism, the more confidence you’ll have in it. And so if we could do really robust, comprehensive exercises to test the efficacy of the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism and the Joint Assessment Mechanism — if and when it’s created — I think that is the way to have confidence that these mechanisms are effective.
Jaime Yassif: And just going back to your question about design choices. One point that I didn’t stress before that I think is important is that we don’t want this new mechanism that we’re talking about, the Joint Assessment Mechanism, to be a completely isolated pillar that’s fully standalone from what WHO can do and what the Secretary-General’s Mechanism can do. We don’t want to have bureaucratic competition between these different mechanisms. We would love them to be mutually reinforcing.
Jaime Yassif: And if there are resources from these other existing mechanisms that we could build into the Joint Assessment Mechanism, all the better. I think it’s a complicated set of questions that we’d have to answer in figuring out how to do that. But I think there’s a lot of benefit to having these mechanisms be mutually reinforcing. And if in fact by creating this Joint Assessment Mechanism, drawing resources to that work, if that could also in parallel strengthen the Secretary-General’s Mechanism, that would be fabulous. That would be a win-win.
How to actually implement a new idea [00:50:58]
Rob Wiblin: It’s an interesting situation. You’re quite a credible, international organization focused on these issues. And you have this idea for a new mechanism that maybe the UN should put in place to plug this gap in their systems. What steps do you take? Who do you call up? What do you write?
Jaime Yassif: So we have done a couple of international meetings to socialize the idea and solicit feedback, and we bring together a diverse community of stakeholders that can help us think this through. Some of these people are scientists that understand the technical elements and the technical questions we’re trying to answer. Some of them are policymakers and decision-makers who sit in various governments that would ultimately have to decide if they support this. Some of them are people who have a lot of experience working in the UN System, who understand how the UN System works and can help us shape something that makes sense.
Jaime Yassif: There are a lot of different stakeholders we bring together, and we ask them questions. We say, “Well, we would like to do X. What do you think?” And they say either “We support it” or “How about try Y?” That’s an iterative process of soliciting feedback, building the idea, socializing it again, and working to build support. So we’re in the middle of that process.
Jaime Yassif: One of the reasons I have more confidence that we have a good chance of success is we have… So I’m working on this project in earnest, but also working in partnership with Angela Kane, who’s on our team as the Sam Nunn Distinguished Fellow at NTI — she used to be the head of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs. And so she understands how the UN System works. She oversaw a lot of related work and she has a ton of knowledge and credibility in the international community. And her involvement in this work is really helping us advance this concept, socialize it, and develop more sophisticated ideas. So I just wanted to give a shout out to Angela and to thank her for the work and just to say how thrilled we are to work with her.
Jaime Yassif: In terms of next steps, we have some working groups that we’ve established and that we’re going to launch in the coming weeks. One is focused on technical questions, and one is focused on these policy and institutional questions. So we can dig into some of these key points that you and I have been discussing: How do you design it? What are the design features? How do you establish the authority? And we hope at some point in the future that we can get to a point where we can actually establish the authority and get the critical mass of States Parties in the international community to say, “Yes, we would like this authority to exist and we will vote to support it.” That’s what we’re working towards.
Jaime Yassif: Now is a really interesting political window of opportunity. It’s not an academic question, it’s a very real question that’s at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. The COVID pandemic has really drawn a lot of attention to these issues and created political space to drive significant change in international biosecurity and pandemic preparedness architecture. We see an opportunity to seize the moment and we really want to go for it, because we think it could make us safer. And so that’s why we’re pushing now.
COVID-19: natural pandemic or lab leak? [00:53:35]
Rob Wiblin: We’ll push on to creating consequences for violators in a second. I’m slightly reluctant to ask this, but people will be too sad if I don’t ask this question. COVID-19 — what do you think? A natural pandemic or might it be a lab leak?
Jaime Yassif: I think the bottom line up front is we just don’t know. My personal view is that it’s most likely to be a naturally occurring event. But I think both hypotheses — naturally occurring or accidentally released — are plausible, and we just don’t have enough information to rule out one or the other. I really hope that we get to the bottom of it, because I think that has value. I’m glad to see the US government and countries around the world pushing to find an answer, but we might never have a definitive answer.
Jaime Yassif: But what I would say is that just the fact that enough people around the world think it’s plausible that there could be a catastrophic global pandemic caused by a laboratory accident, I think points towards a future of what we need to do. If we really think that’s a credible risk, we should be taking much more dramatic steps than we have been taking to reduce the risk that that could happen. Some of that has to do with biosafety strengthening, and some of that has to do with governance of dual-use bioscience research, which I know we’ll talk about in a few minutes.
Jaime Yassif: In terms of how that has shaped our ability to create change, I think it’s a double-edged sword. In one way it has opened up important conversations and gotten people in senior leadership positions to be asking really serious questions about how we safeguard bioscience and biotechnology and guard against these risks, and that’s incredibly valuable. It’s been very interesting to see that and have the opportunity to use the moment to drive change. On the other hand, it’s also created some polarization and some very politicized discourse around these issues, which we find incredibly unhelpful. We’re always pushing to have evidence-based, science-based discussions and to stay away from the politicization, which we don’t think is helpful. So it’s complicated, but that’s how I see it.
Rob Wiblin: What should the consequence be for a country that leaks a terrible pathogen from a military lab or some other secret research lab?
Jaime Yassif: I don’t have an immediate answer to that question. I think the question of accountability for those kinds of events or deliberate attack is a really important one. And I’m not even sure that punitive consequences are the right answer in the case of an accidental release, if there’s not malicious intent or a violation, and if it was just a legitimate research project and there’s been an accident. We should think about whether we should support the country in question or whether punitive approaches are the right ones. So it’s a tough question.
Jaime Yassif: It’s a different matter if there’s an accidental release and it’s found to be coming from a lab that was pursuing bioweapons development. I think that’s a different matter and it seems appropriate to consider the question of accountability and punitive consequences. But I don’t have a clear answer for what that should be. And I think we need to do more work to figure out the answers to those questions.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. As an economist, the thing that jumps to mind to me is the probability of detection multiplied by how bad the consequence would be for a country, if them causing a terrible pandemic were detected. So you’d think if the probability of detection is low, they need to make sure that the consequences are very bad. And I suppose if the probability of catching a criminal, so to speak, is high, then maybe you don’t need to have such a severe penalty in order to make sure that countries are sufficiently discouraged from doing it. I suppose, just in the international realm, it’s hard to think about things like this, because we’re talking about issues of military conflict potentially, or serious conflict between countries. It’s very serious business, rather than just criminal justice policy.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. It’s hard to divorce the answer to this question from politics, and fundamentally it will be a very political discussion, if and when it does come up. I would say that there are a variety of different kinds of accountability measures that you could think about. Some of them could be financial. Some of them could be diplomatic isolation from the international community. Some of them could be more military. It’s a really tough question to answer, and I think you would want the response to be proportional.
Jaime Yassif: Also, you would want to make sure that you weren’t creating a system that had undesired outcomes or perverse incentives. So you would want to think about that really hard. The other thing that’s worth thinking about also is just the reputational cost to a country. If a significant portion of the international community thinks that they’re responsible for it, even if it’s uncertain, there’s significant cost to international prestige and reputational risks that is in itself a pretty heavy cost, so that’s also worth bearing in mind.
Rob Wiblin: Is there any kind of political policy or legal agenda around this issue of creating consequences for violating —
Jaime Yassif: Not at the moment.
Rob Wiblin: No. Okay. I see. Interesting. I suppose that would be in principle part of the Biological Weapons Convention, but it’s just not, in practice, being pursued at the moment.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. I just think it’s a really hard question, and one that is not being tackled. And I’ve asked people about it as part of my research, and their answer is generally that it would be really hard to do, and it’s a very political question and it really depends on who were the players involved and what their relationship was to the existing superpowers of the time. Very challenging, but important.
How much can we rely on traditional law enforcement to detect terrorists? [00:58:24]
Rob Wiblin: Okay. We’ve been talking about states here, but turning for a minute to the more traditional terrorist WMD threat. How much can we just rely on traditional security enforcement by law enforcement, intelligence agencies, the FBI, Interpol, and that kind of thing to detect plots to use biological weapons and catch or kill or at least disrupt the terrorists who are trying to do that?
Jaime Yassif: I would love to see a future where I could answer that question in saying, “We’ve got it covered. We can definitely rely on our security community to solve that problem.” I just don’t think we’re there. I don’t think we’ve invested the time and resources to have the tools and mechanisms in place to do that well. I do think now, partially in response to COVID, a lot of these communities are revisiting this question and thinking about bolstering intelligence, bolstering law enforcement.
Jaime Yassif: We also need stronger connections between law enforcement and the scientific community and the public health community, so that they can get better information about what’s going on. I also think a lot of the work that we’re doing at NTI about strengthening governance of dual-use bioscience and biotechnology research and development could help strengthen those tools, and this all needs to be interconnected. Part of the problem is this is a needle in the haystack issue.
Rob Wiblin: Same issue with all terrorism, really.
Jaime Yassif: Perhaps. There’s so much legitimate bioscience and biotechnology research and development going on around the world. And it’s so deeply dual use that it’s very hard to discern malicious intent or malicious action from that mountain of legitimate activity. It’s not that it can’t be done, but we have to set up more effective structures for doing that.
Jaime Yassif: And again, I think the various parts of the security sector that you mentioned all need to invest a lot more resources and capabilities to get us to the future where we need to be. We need to build better tools in the science and technology policy sector and the governance place to enable those security sector agencies to plug into, so we can have a whole system that works. So it’s a really hard nut to crack and it can’t be solved in isolation. I think these other governance approaches that we’re going to talk about in a few minutes are a critical piece, and without that, it’ll be really hard for them to be effective.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I guess there’s potentially kind of a domestic policy agenda issue that someone could pursue in the US or the UK or Australia, trying to improve the security capabilities to check up on what terrorists are doing or be more aware of what plots terrorist organizations might be pursuing. Is that right? I guess this is more maybe at the national level than the UN level?
Jaime Yassif: I think that there’s both national-level work and international work that could be done. I think individual governments within their respective intelligence and security agencies would need to build up more capabilities to do this work more effectively. Interpol has a really interesting role to play because they are the connecting point for law enforcement and security apparatuses in different countries all around the world. So Interpol also has an opportunity to strengthen their capabilities as well. I think that they are in fact doing that, and I applaud them and we want to support their efforts.
Constraining capabilities [01:01:27]
Rob Wiblin: Okay. Moving on from shaping intent, NTI has a vision for this other comprehensive package of interventions that hopefully collectively can make it a lot harder for anyone to deliberately or accidentally produce or release a really dangerous pathogen. You call this “constraining capabilities,” and I guess it’s what you think is the main thing to do in the case of individuals or terrorist groups or laboratories that are at risk of making a terrible mistake that affects everyone.
Rob Wiblin: I came into preparing for this interview pretty pessimistic that any of this could work. Because my sense is that the technology is progressing so fast that even if you can slow down access a bit, dangerous techniques will ultimately end up being available to people all over the world pretty fast anyway. Maybe to start out, can you tell me why I should be more optimistic that we really can constrain the ability of people to do dangerous things with biotech?
Jaime Yassif: I understand why this is challenging to wrap your brain around. I think a lot of people are challenged by thinking about this in this new way. Part of the reason for that is that the M.O. we’ve seen so far has been very slow movement on the part of large institutions that make decisions slowly — including governments, including international organizations — and they really play a vital role.
Jaime Yassif: I think the way that we need to keep up with rapid advances in bioscience and biotechnology is by partnering with the very organizations that are driving those advances and move at that pace. I think the reason we can succeed is if we are working with the same scientists, and academic research institutions, and companies, and funders, and publishers that are driving the advances — if we build in biosecurity into the very processes by which the technology’s developed — we have a real chance at staying ahead of the curve.
Jaime Yassif: I think it’s a combination of working with these more agile, fast-moving groups, and then it’s also being proactive and not reactive. So instead of responding to a new threat after it emerges and preparing a patch, if we look over the horizon and see what’s coming and proactively build in new biosecurity systems before new capabilities come online, I think we can keep up.
Jaime Yassif: A classic example of this is in the DNA synthesis screening domain. The community of DNA synthesis providers, most of which are companies, voluntarily screen DNA synthesis orders in order to make sure the pieces of DNA — which are the building blocks of all living things, the building blocks of dangerous pathogens — don’t fall into the hands of malicious actors. So they’re pretty technologically sophisticated. They’re able to evolve their screening capabilities as technology advances.
Jaime Yassif: An example of looking over the horizon is benchtop synthesis. That’s this new mode where instead of centralized DNA synthesis, you have this future — which we think is coming soon — where people might be able to print DNA on their benchtop. Not everyone’s going to do that, but a part of the market is going there. What we are thinking about at NTI, and what the benchtop synthesis development community is thinking about, is how do we build in biosecurity by design, and make that a reality before these tools are disseminated widely. That’s a classic example of how you stay ahead of the curve and you don’t let the technology get out ahead of you before the security’s built in. And we need to do that across the board.
Rob Wiblin: So before we get a bit confused, we’re mostly talking here about working with legitimate labs and companies and so on to constrain the capabilities of malicious actors.
Jaime Yassif: That’s right.
Rob Wiblin: How does all of this connect with bioweapons in particular?
Jaime Yassif: I think it’s good to zoom out and talk about the big picture before we get into the nitty-gritty details of the actions. So what we’re trying to do is prevent two types of big risks. One is we want to prevent malicious actors, like rogue actors, from exploiting the legitimate global bioscience and biotechnology research and development enterprise that they could use to make it easier for them to develop a biological weapon and carry out an attack. That’s one huge piece of this.
Jaime Yassif: The other piece is we also want to prevent catastrophic lab accidents. So we want to reduce the possibility or reduce the risk that there could be an accidental laboratory release of an engineered pathogen that could have catastrophic consequences. So those are the two big pieces that we’re after in our work to strengthen governance of bioscience and biotechnology.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. So NTI’s theory here is that there’s no silver bullet, as you were saying, so we kind of need a full-court press on all of the different mechanisms that we can use to lower the risks incrementally. And I guess there’s various different intervention points that you’ve identified where potentially you can do that. And broadly speaking, the groups that you can work with are funders, institutional research oversight groups, legal regulators, suppliers of all kinds of different materials that are necessary for a project to go ahead, and then finally publishers. Have I got that picture right?
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. That’s great. Let me just unpack that a little bit. We don’t believe that there’s a single silver bullet. There’s no one action we can take that will reduce the risk to zero or near zero. We really believe in a layered defense and that there are multiple intervention points throughout the bioscience and biotechnology research and development lifecycle, and we want to go as upstream as possible.
Jaime Yassif: So it begins at the funding and project conception stage. It progresses through research execution, either at an academic facility or in a company. It involves the acquisition of goods and services like DNA and getting pathogen samples from a pathogen repository. These are all things that you need to get in order to do your work, if you’re a scientist. Then it goes on to publication and/or commercialization. So there are different groups that control these different points and each of those points is an opportunity for risk reduction that I think is meaningful.
The funding landscape [01:07:00]
Rob Wiblin: Nice. Let’s go one by one and maybe tackle funders first. What’s the current situation with respect to funders about how they think about the risks of the work that they’re potentially actually paying for?
Jaime Yassif: The best I can say about the funding landscape with regard to biosecurity is that it’s fragmented. There’s a separation between public and private funders. When I say public funders, I mean governments. Governments — including in the US and in a lot of other countries — fund a lot of bioscience and biotechnology development. Some of them have controls in place to do some sort of biosecurity review and dual-use review before they decide to award a grant or a contract, while others don’t.
Jaime Yassif: And even within the United States government, there are a lot of differences of opinion about how stringent those review processes are. Some people think that US government processes are not as stringent as they should be. And then that’s not to mention other countries that have a variety of different provisions. And based on what we found in the Global Health Security Index, I would argue that there is a lot of work to be done, both in the US and internationally, to really strengthen those review processes.
Jaime Yassif: Then you look at the private sector. Some of that is going to be philanthropic funding, also a major driver of bioscience and biotechnology research and development. Some of it is private sector investors at various stages of startups or bigger companies. Philanthropies, again, also have different views. I think some philanthropies, including the Open Philanthropy Project, care a lot about biosecurity. And my experience is before they decide to fund something, they think really hard about what the biosecurity implications are of that project going ahead. There are other philanthropies where that’s not really at the forefront. Obviously no philanthropic organization wants to be funding something that’s going to be a problem, but they don’t necessarily explicitly have processes in place that we’re aware of. It’s just kind of ad hoc, and fragmented, and there are holes.
Jaime Yassif: When you look at the private sector, also very patchy. We actually, as part of our work, spent some time talking to funders at various early stages of investment. And I think we have more work to do there. At least startup investors feel that it’s kind of too early in the process — when a company is nascent, it’s not the right time. It’s when it’s a bigger company, they know they should deal with it then.
Jaime Yassif: Other private investors told us that they’re happy to ask the companies they invest in to comply with anything that’s required from a regulatory perspective, but they’re not going to ask them to do anything that’s above and beyond what’s absolutely legally required, because they don’t want them to be at a competitive disadvantage. And in general, I think we still have a lot of work to do to convince private funders that it’s in their interest, and that there’s a value proposition for doing biosecurity screening.
Jaime Yassif: Something that we’re thinking about at NTI is a Biosecurity Funders’ Compact. We want to take this fragmented landscape that I’ve described, get all these different funders to pledge, and say, “Hey, we’re going to take biosecurity really seriously with our funding going forward. We’re going to put processes in place and we’re going to prioritize this as part of our review process.” We want to get that pledge in place and we want to help these various funders develop processes that will meaningfully screen. That’s something we would like to see moving forward as we continue to do our work. But again, it’s a pretty heavy lift and there’s a lot of work to do.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I just saw this topic in the news a couple of days ago, actually. The New Yorker had this story about the Wuhan Institute for Virology applying for research funding from DARPA to a furin cleavage site into bat coronaviruses. This was a couple years ago. They were turned down, and there’s no clear evidence that this actually went ahead. But apparently the DARPA reviewers, they didn’t just not want to fund it — they were shocked and dismayed apparently by how irresponsible they thought this project was. So I guess there evidently is, in some organizations, an awareness of these issues. I suppose DARPA is directly connected with security, so that’s unusually front of the mind for them. But I suppose we kind of just want all funders to be thinking along these lines of how could things go wrong.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. DARPA is a really interesting example. What I’ll say about them is that there have been some really forward-leaning people who have worked in DARPA in the office that funds bioscience and biotechnology, who are very concerned about these risks and they’ve put processes in place exactly for this reason. I think the example you’re citing is an example of a process working well. I don’t know the details of that process or the details of that specific grant proposal, so I’m not going to comment on that. But generally I agree with you.
Jaime Yassif: We would really like all major funders across the board to be prioritizing this issue and have a process in place — one that makes sense and that meaningfully screens. The other thing I should share is that it’s not just about good intentions. Having a process that correctly weighs benefits and risks is really hard, right? It’s not a trivial question. There’s not an obvious answer. There’s a lot of work just to be done there. And I think in addition to calling on funders to do this better, we should also help them devise processes that work.
Rob Wiblin: So this question shows up on almost every one of these groups: to what extent is it a lack of people wanting or caring about these issues versus their ability to do it? Because as a funder, you’ve got limited resources yourself, and hiring the necessary expertise to figure out whether a grant passes a risk-benefit analysis — maybe you just can’t find the folks or it’s hard to pay for that. Is it capabilities that’s the main issue or motivation or drive?
Jaime Yassif: I would say for the most part, it carries across all these different groups that capabilities are a major constraint. It’s just hard to do these things well, and these various groups will be more effective if we can help them build tools and systems that will help them screen more effectively at the respective points. I think we should approach these different communities as our allies that need support. We should offer them resources and assistance with building capabilities. I’m not saying that everyone across the board in all these groups is gung ho, and there are certain cases where we need to convince people that this should be a priority — where either they don’t see a value proposition or they don’t share our risk perceptions.
Jaime Yassif: I think there are some exceptions where people are worried that these kinds of controls could perhaps stymie important progress in science and technology, and it overweights the biosecurity or biosafety risks, and that we don’t have the threat assessment or risk assessment quite right. I think there’s more work to be done to talk to parts of this community that are skeptical, so we can come to a shared view on how you thread the needle there. But generally speaking, I think helping with capabilities is a long pole in the tent.
Rob Wiblin: Even if someone isn’t as concerned about biosecurity as you and I are, if you make it easier for them to do it, then they might be more willing to buy into it, because you’re just not asking so much of them. Is there any process that you would like to see broadly taken up, or is it just going to depend on the organization and the kind of things that they’re working on?
Jaime Yassif: For each of these different points that we’ve been talking about — funders, oversight, providers of goods and services, and publication — I think each of them is going to have to have their own set of processes. I imagine that there is synergy here, and if you figure out how to do one process well, you could probably learn from that in other parts of this sort of lifecycle that I’m talking about. But I think each of these nodes needs a slightly different setup.
Rob Wiblin: To what extent do we need to train just tons, hundreds, thousands of people who are capable of doing this kind of risk-benefit analysis? Maybe that’s a key bottleneck?
Jaime Yassif: We probably do need more people. I don’t exactly know how many. We haven’t done a back-of-the-envelope calculation about how many people it would take to do this well. I think the first step is getting institutional buy-in to do the risk-benefit analysis, figuring out what that risk-benefit analysis process looks like, and developing a meaningful process. That’s step one: buy-in and process. And then once we figure that out, then we can populate the positions.
Oversight committees [01:14:24]
Rob Wiblin: So the next group of people is the folks who provide oversight and approval for research to go ahead, in both commercial and academic facilities. I suppose maybe it’s a similar picture here, but how is that group performing on a biosecurity perspective at the moment?
Jaime Yassif: I have more visibility to what’s going on in academic research institutions and I have less understanding of what’s going on in private companies. So within academic facilities — at least, in the United States and a lot of parts of the West — there are oversight committees that largely do biosafety-related oversight. And some of those groups also do biosecurity, but most of them don’t, because we haven’t really defined what it means to do biosecurity review.
Rob Wiblin: Maybe we should just define biosecurity versus biosafety, because they’re surprisingly different.
Jaime Yassif: So biosafety, as I would define it and I think as we would define it at NTI, is preventing accidental release of biological agents or pathogens from the lab — either through some sort of physical failure of equipment, or through some human that gets infected and spreads it by human-to-human contact. So biosafety is meant to prevent that.
Jaime Yassif: Biosecurity is preventing the exploitation of the legitimate enterprise by malicious actors. And so, in my view it’s preventing the dissemination of info hazards that could create a roadmap to make it easier for people to engineer or create a pathogen. Or preventing people from getting the materials that they could use in order to make a pathogen. It’s preventing them from getting access to facilities where they might be able to use those facilities to make something nasty. It’s those kinds of things. So it’s preventing exploitation for weapons purposes.
Rob Wiblin: So labs and institutions and universities more often think about biosafety — they think about how their staff could get sick more than the broader global picture of “How do we prevent terrible things from happening?”
Jaime Yassif: Well, biosafety encompasses accidental release that could spread into the community, in addition to occupational safety issues. Biosafety is an idea that has an institutional history — there’s a process, it has broader international support, and it’s very clearly defined. Biosecurity just isn’t as well-developed — what it means to do that and what are the control measures you put in place to reduce those risks. That just doesn’t have as broad international support, it doesn’t have the institutional history, and it doesn’t have the institutional infrastructure.
Jaime Yassif: So in terms of what it means to strengthen biosecurity at various institutions, I think one way to think about it is if you take the existing biosafety infrastructure at universities, and you make sure that those groups of people have the expertise and resources to also do biosecurity review. And you try to get that to be shared internationally. There’s work to be done here in developing what those practices are.
Jaime Yassif: And as part of our efforts at NTI, we’re also working with the group at Stanford, with leadership from Megan Palmer. She’s thinking a lot about these questions — how do we share information across different communities to figure out how to do this better? Because I think there’s a lot of learning we need to do as a community to do that well. But my understanding is that a lot of this is going on in the United States and the West, and in other countries I’m less sure — and that we have to help our partners in other countries build more robust infrastructure. NTI has engaged a lot of projects to help train people, experts in other countries, to do this well and to build that infrastructure. And there’s a lot of willingness but again, these people are allies and partners and they need help and they need resources.
Jaime Yassif: In terms of companies, we definitely want to see similar infrastructure there, but I don’t have as much visibility into what’s going on right now. I would assume they’re taking some precautions, at the very least, to meet their legal requirements. And probably going above and beyond that, because their enlightened self-interest is to avoid catastrophic accidents or other mishaps.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I hope they perceive it that way. If you’re the safety person at a university — or I suppose a company as well, but let’s talk about a university — it seems like you’re in a tricky spot, because you’re constantly asking all of your colleagues to do this burdensome work in order to have something be safer, and maybe you’re turning down their applications to conduct some research.
Rob Wiblin: And they’re going to be in your face all the time, being frustrated by this. There’s a bunch of work on your part, to actually do your job well, while the kind of catastrophes that we’re trying to prevent happen hopefully almost never. And Jaime Yassif isn’t going to be talking to the administrator here who is making these decisions, explaining why it’s so important to maintain a hard line, even when it’s annoying for staff. Is there anything that could be done about that bias, I suppose, that that creates?
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. I think all the incentive structures within the academic and perhaps the commercial research space are kind of perverse and misaligned with a safer future. I think there are a lot of incentives for researchers to raise funds, to do things that are provocative that get them in the media, to do things that get them publications. And currently, there are not a lot of institutional pressures or drivers that would incentivize the scientists not to do something risky, or to redesign their experiment to do it in a safer way. So there’s a lot of incentives to push for pathbreaking work, and not a lot of incentives to be cautious where it might be in the interests of their country or the international community.
Jaime Yassif: I also think that we have a lot of work to do in partnership with various scientific societies and communities to sync up with them on risk perceptions. I think one of the challenges here is that a lot of people in the scientific community genuinely believe that it’s really important to advance their research in order to find innovative solutions to solve societal problems — anything we do that slows them down is really going to hold society back and has a net loss for everyone. And that there’s a different risk perception than what we have. And Carl Shulman talked about this also, when he had his podcast with you, and I agree with him: the biosecurity community has a different risk perception and we see the balance of these two issues slightly differently.
Jaime Yassif: And so, part of the reason the institutional structures are set up the way that they are, the way that I’m describing, is because there are just different views about what we need to prioritize. I guess it goes back to the fact that these are tail risks — that it doesn’t happen a lot, and so people don’t perceive the risks in the same ways. And it leads them to different conclusions about how much of a process we should put in place to make sure that research is safe and secure.
Just winning the argument [01:20:20]
Rob Wiblin: So this shows up again and again. One of the reasons not everyone is doing what we want is that they don’t actually share our perception about how probable these possibilities are and how severe they would be, if they happen.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: To what extent can we just do a lot of good by kind of winning the argument that these things are disturbingly probable and they would be extremely bad. And so it’s in everyone’s enlightened interest to shift their risk-benefit calculation a bit in favor of worrying about the risks.
Jaime Yassif: I would love to win the argument. I’m not really sure how you do that. So if you have ideas about how we could change people’s minds —
Rob Wiblin: We’ll start a podcast, Jaime.
Jaime Yassif: [laughs] We’re talking about the probability of different events. People tend to develop intuitions about the probability of things based on extrapolation from the past. And to get people to develop a risk perception about what the future could look like — that’s not an extrapolation of the past — is counterintuitive. And I think it’s really hard. We could develop scary models about a future that could happen, we could tell scary stories. Some people would find that plausible and others wouldn’t.
Jaime Yassif: If folks in the effective altruism community can come up with compelling ways that we can make the case that is convincing, I would be keen to hear those ideas. It’s important to do it in a way that doesn’t promulgate info hazards. You want to make sure you don’t have people out there telling scary stories, inventing scary ways to bring about a global catastrophic biological risk. That’s irresponsible and that’s not what we need to do, and it’s not going to be convincing anyway — it’s just risky.
Jaime Yassif: So I’m not sure what the answer is to that. Part of it might just be a generational shift — that, over time, if young people have a different worldview about what are our responsibilities to each other, to our community, to our country and to people around the world, to the long-term future. And then that weighs more heavily in terms of how they make decisions, about how they go about their daily lives. If more people in the scientific community have that mindset, maybe over time that could shift.
Jaime Yassif: Scientists should be asking themselves questions about what are their red lines: “Are there things that I just shouldn’t be doing?” And what is the moral imperative there, and where should we draw those red lines? And this is a question David Relman, who’s a professor at Stanford, has been advocating that we ask. And we talk about that a lot, and we’re trying to think about what the answer to that question is.
Jaime Yassif: I think that the most promising answer I’ve thought of is just, “Can we start a more substantive, evidence-based conversation about whether there should be red lines in this space? And if so, where do we draw them and what do we do about them?” If we can have a real conversation with the scientific community about this, and what are the moral implications of this question, maybe we can make some headway.
Jaime Yassif: And maybe that’s the most promising way to really tackle this, is we need to have a serious conversation about it, that’s focused and technical and not hand-waving — we need to get down to it. And maybe now is a moment that we’ve created an opening for that conversation, where that opening wasn’t there before. Either because it seemed like a niche academic issue that wasn’t a real problem — which is definitely not the case now — or that it’s just some contrived threat that’s not real. So maybe we can take advantage of this political moment to start those important conversations and drive some progress.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Maybe this is too cynical, but it’s very hard to convince a man of something when his livelihood depends on him not believing it. We notice that people who are involved in the coal industry tend not to be too concerned about climate change. Obviously, the scientific community isn’t that far off, because people really do worry about these things, and there’s lots of very prominent scientists who are sounding the alarm about all kinds of risks all the time. But if you’re a junior scientist and someone’s telling you that you shouldn’t pursue your research because of some very low tail risk — basically they might be asking you to give up your career or give up your probability of getting tenure at some point, by slowing you down. I guess that gives you a strong incentive to find flaws in their argument, rightly or wrongly.
Jaime Yassif: Well yeah. I think that’s why we need to change those incentive structures. We should not put people in a position where they’re choosing between what’s going to advance their career and their self-interest versus what’s going to be the best for the long-term future of humanity. Ideally, those incentives should be pointing in the same direction, not in opposite directions.
Rob Wiblin: And I guess that’s why we’re talking about the funders and the journals and all these other groups who they interact with.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. And it also reminds me of another project that I haven’t talked about, that I think is worth mentioning as we think about changing incentive structures. And this is a little bit more nascent of an idea and we’re still working to flesh out how to make it work in practice, but it’s fundamentally driven by this problem that you’re talking about — that the incentive structures are not aligned and we would love to see them become more aligned.
Jaime Yassif: And that leads us to this idea of a seal of approval. What we’d like to see is modes of peer review within the scientific community, where either universities or research groups or individuals — we haven’t figured out how to structure it exactly — where you can basically give people or institutions a rating and say, “Hey, you get a gold star because you are really responsible in terms of biosecurity.”
Jaime Yassif: And then that actually can lead to promotions or financial incentives or good standing in the community, reputational enhancement, for scoring well on this evaluation criteria. Maybe it could look like LEED certification, as an analogous kind of thing. We’re still thinking through how to structure it, and it’s very early days, it’s very nascent. But I think we’re trying to get at this incentive structure problem and try to build some sort of peer review mechanism that starts to push things in a different direction. It’s really hard and it’s complicated, but we’re being responsive to this question you raised, because I think it’s really fundamental. Until we change that dynamic, we’re going to have headwinds.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. How likely do you think it is that you and me and our kind of fellow travelers are wrong about this? And maybe we’re underweighting the benefits of the scientific research? And in fact, the scientists pursuing some of these projects are right, that the gains of their research are so large that we shouldn’t be just slowing them down?
Jaime Yassif: I think this is a really… to use EA terminology, this question is a crux, right? Are we modeling the benefits correctly? And are we modeling the risks correctly? And I think we should be humble and we should have some uncertainty here. I think there’s fundamental uncertainty about both sides here. There’s fundamental uncertainty about the magnitude of a global catastrophic biological risk or a high-consequence bio-event happening from these kinds of activities. We don’t know what the order of magnitude of that risk is and what the high end of the consequences are from an absolute tail risk. We don’t know and I think it’ll be very hard for us to nail that down.
Jaime Yassif: On the other hand, I don’t think we are underweighting the benefits of science and technology generally. I think there are a lot of important open questions about the benefits of certain kinds of research that people are doing in the scientific community, that they argue is important for anticipating future pandemics or for developing more effective countermeasures. And sometimes the arguments are, “We need to modify this pathogen in this way to make it more transmissible or to make it more virulent or to make it resistant to medical countermeasures, so we can see what that threat looks like, so then we can design a countermeasure for it.”
Jaime Yassif: I’m not totally convinced by those arguments. And I feel like the onus should be on that community that’s making those arguments to give more evidence. I think that’s an important crux and an important point of disagreement. But I generally agree that bioscience and biotechnology have tremendous promise, and we agree with that wholeheartedly. I think we’re not underweighting it.
Rob Wiblin: We should keep our eye out.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: Because even if we’re not underweighting it in general, in some specific case, we could get things wrong. I guess, hypothetically, you could imagine some parallel world where we were really worried about the possible misuse of mRNA vaccines or something like that, and then we slowed down the development of mRNA vaccines. I guess that’s the fear that some scientists have, that you would prevent something really valuable from being invented. I suppose when we look at the individual cases, we’re not super convinced that that’s what’s going on.
NTI’s vision [01:27:43]
Rob Wiblin: Okay. We’ll dive into some of the specifics in a second, but at a high level, it seems like there’s a lot of challenges leaning on all of these groups to change what they’re doing. What’s the mentality that you’re bringing to this project of constraining capabilities?
Jaime Yassif: The way that we talk about it is, we want to reduce emerging biological risks associated with rapid technology advances. And we want to move quickly to keep up with the pace of these technology developments and develop meaningful solutions that reduce risks. We’re thinking about tackling this, really, at an international level, because fundamentally, it’s an international problem. And unless countries around the world tackle this in a comprehensive way, it’s going to be hard to meaningfully address the risk.
Jaime Yassif: We see a gap in the current biosecurity architecture that we’re hoping to fill. There are a couple reasons for this. First of all, countries around the world, as we saw in our Global Health Security Index, for the most part really don’t have the governance, tools, and regulations in place to provide effective oversight of bioscience and biotechnology, and in particular, dual-use bioscience research and development.
Jaime Yassif: Our data showed that fewer than 5% of countries around the world really had evidence that they were effectively doing this. And even in the United States, which has done a lot, there’s a lot of room for improvement in the US as well. And so that was one driver for us thinking about this.
Jaime Yassif: At an international level, there’s work going on at various institutions that’s really valuable, but there’s no international entity existing right now that’s dedicated to reducing this set of risks that I’ve been talking about and taking on these specific approaches that we’re discussing.
Jaime Yassif: The two most visible and, in my view, valuable players in this space are the World Health Organization, which has a science office that’s relatively new that’s tackling some of these issues. And that’s fantastic and they’re doing really valuable work. And likewise, the Biological Weapons Convention, the part of the UN that supports that and serves as secretariat for that convention. That convention is really important for upholding the norm against bioweapons development and use. And they’re thinking about technology issues that are associated with that convention, and they’re trying to build up capabilities to be smarter about that and better informed.
Jaime Yassif: And that’s fabulous, but I still think that there’s a gap in the system and that these existing institutions aren’t really designed or set up to address the set of issues that I’ve been describing. And so, we at NTI are envisioning setting up a new international organization that’s dedicated to biosecurity and that would work very closely with the UN System, including the BWC and including WHO, but would be independent and would really be the home for all these different kinds of projects, in an ideal future. And it would work to meaningfully reduce risks.
Jaime Yassif: The mission that we’re envisioning is that it would work to reduce catastrophic biological events that could be caused by a deliberate attack or an accidental release event. And that this entity would promote stronger global norms about biosecurity and also develop tools and incentive structures to incentivize people and institutions to actually adhere to those norms. So that’s the big picture, and that’s a lot to tackle — it’s a very broad mandate. We envision that it would start pretty small, with a pretty narrow focus. And if we can demonstrate that that works well, for example, with DNA synthesis screening, then we can expand from there. That’s the vision.
Rob Wiblin: It’s a big vision.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. It’s big. We’re working with international partners right now to scope out what this entity would look like, what its mission would be, what its scope would be, how we might structure the organization, how we might fund it, how it might connect to other parts of the international biosecurity architecture. We would ideally like to launch the organization by the end of next year, by the end of 2022 — that’s a work in progress. But we’re really excited about it and we think it’s a relatively new approach to addressing this set of issues. That’s the big picture.
Rob Wiblin: Is the goal to get global coverage with these reforms? Or is it primarily you care about the countries with the most advanced biotech industries? Or is it maybe just, the more countries you can bring on board with some of these changes then the better?
Jaime Yassif: I think it’s more about getting as close to global coverage as we can. Certainly, the highest priority is putting these governance provisions in place, where there actually are risks where the technology exists. But that’s changing all the time, because biotechnology and bioscience are spreading to countries around the world. More and more countries see a value proposition in advancing that and so I think in the future, there’ll be more countries with those capabilities.
Jaime Yassif: So we just really want to get everyone on board. This idea of finding the biggest holes and plugging them — we think this is plugging a huge hole. We don’t want to leave huge holes in the system, where there are huge swathes of the globe but they’re just not in sync with us. And so that’s the idea; we want to try to take a global approach.
Rob Wiblin: Is the idea to do things through legal reforms, or is it more going around and having lots of conversations and persuading lots of different groups to plug these holes because this is the right thing to do?
Jaime Yassif: We’re trying to tackle this at various levels. I think we would like to get government buy-in, for governments to have guidelines in place, and where it makes sense, to have regulations in place. Sometimes legal requirements are effective and sometimes guidelines are effective; it’s not always super simple. And then, we also want to talk to communities. So, publishers are a globally networked community of stakeholders. Funders, likewise.
Jaime Yassif: I think the conversation we would want to have with any of the stakeholders is, “Look, it’s in your enlightened self-interest to pursue this.” No part of this lifecycle, from project conceptualization to execution, to publication — those communities don’t want to be involved in causing a global catastrophic biological risk and it’s in their interest to avoid that. So if they see a plausible path forward, where they could get help to reduce those risks effectively and it doesn’t —
Rob Wiblin: Interfere with their business too much.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. It doesn’t interfere with their business or their M.O., then it seems like we could shift the balance in favor of taking action.
Suppliers of goods and services [01:33:27]
Rob Wiblin: The next group on the list is suppliers of materials, and I guess technology and intellectual property and that sort of thing — services that are important inputs to research projects. What is there that’s interesting or important to say about that group and where they ought to be, or what you’d ideally like them to do?
Jaime Yassif: The simplest way to describe this group is when you’re a bioscience researcher, you need services and you need stuff to do your work. A classic example to make this very concrete is DNA synthesis providers. People in research labs are constantly ordering DNA over the internet to do their next experiment, and then it gets shipped to them in the mail a few days later. So that’s a crucial service and an integrated part of the bioscience research infrastructure.
Jaime Yassif: That’s an example of the industry and the community of service providers really doing the right thing. They’ve voluntarily stepped forward to screen their orders and their customers for the most part — even though it’s not legally required — because they think it’s in their enlightened self-interest. And they’re doing a pretty good job across the board.
Jaime Yassif: I think the downside is there isn’t comprehensive coverage. We don’t exactly know what percentage of global market share is covered — the best number I’ve heard is 80%. So, an estimated 80% of global market share is covered by companies that screen, and then there’s a gap — roughly 20%, but we don’t really know for sure — of companies that are not screening. And we want to get — again, with plugging the biggest holes — we want to get closer to full coverage.
Jaime Yassif: The concrete example of what we’re doing at NTI is we’re developing an international common mechanism for DNA synthesis screenings to make it easier for providers to screen, to make it cheaper and faster, so we can get more comprehensive coverage and we can just raise the standard of practice across the providers that do screen.
Jaime Yassif: The one thing I would add is that’s an example, that’s not everything, and I think there are going to be new service providers in the future that we’re going to want to look at. For example, cloud labs or something that are coming online, where we might want to look at analogous solution sets and get ahead of the curve there in terms of safeguarding that space as well.
Rob Wiblin: What about companies that supply things other than synthesized DNA? Just other advanced inputs that you might need in a research lab. To what extent could they interrogate a project about, “What exactly are you doing with these things? Are you following some biosecurity protocol?” — and they’d only be willing to sell materials to groups that have met their standards for safety?
Jaime Yassif: That’s a possible future. I think that plugs into this idea of a seal of approval that I was talking about a few minutes ago, where you would have to figure out: What are the standards of practice that we want to incentivize and measure against? And who’s actually qualified to ascertain whether a company or a lab in question is actually in compliance? And can we have a credible third party do that? And so I think that future is plausible, but we have to build the infrastructure to make that real, and we just don’t have that right now.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I guess if you’re a for-profit company, how do you pay for this? Because if you have a competitor that’s not doing it, then they’re potentially going to be able to undercut you. So if you’re going to have prudential self-regulation by an industry, they’d have to really be on board with the idea that it’s a big threat to their industry to have anyone not following these rules, because it could bring down the hammer on everyone.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. I think the best analogy here is the DNA synthesis community. They have invested a lot of resources in screening, even though it’s not legally required, because they know that it would be really damaging to their entire industry and to them as individual companies if they were involved in selling DNA and it turned out to be associated with some horrible accident that could have been prevented or anticipated, or a bio-terrorist attack.
Jaime Yassif: So I think to an extent, enlightened self-interest can be helpful. And even if there’s no legal requirement, I think there are still some details to work out in terms of the incentive structure for industry for the kind of seal of approval and peer review that we’re talking about. So it’s not trivial to figure that out. But I think you’re asking the right kinds of questions.
Jaime Yassif: The only other thing I would say is that some things are more conducive to this kind of screening than others., There are things like DNA synthesis screening or cloud labs where you could look specifically at what the customer in question is trying to order and evaluate pretty carefully whether it’s risky or not. And there are other things that are very general purpose — like centrifuges or just equipment, automation equipment — that there’s nothing you could do to look at the order in question and say, “Oh, this is irresponsible.” It’s just a very general use. And so I think for general use stuff, it’s harder to screen in that way. You could still do the kind of thing that you’re talking about, which is screening your customer. So, there are different ways to approach that.
Rob Wiblin: With the DNA screening case, there’s very different threat models. So one will be researchers who are perhaps doing something that they ought not to be because they just aren’t risk-averse enough. And then there’s also the malicious actor who knows that they’re doing something very bad. And for them, it seems like even if you have a single company that’s outside of this system and isn’t doing any screening, then you have a big problem, because then everyone who is malicious can just go to that one single company. I guess it’s easier maybe if someone’s accidentally doing something that’s dangerous, then they get like alerts from the company that they’re buying from that might push them in the right direction. But this is one thing that’s kind of demoralized people a little bit, the sense that if you don’t have 100% globally, then it doesn’t help at all.
Jaime Yassif: I would push back on that. I know I’m going to sound like a broken record. The solution is still effective even if it’s not 100%, and I think that’s true across the board for biosecurity and pandemic preparedness. And I think the reason in this specific case, this question of if there’s one company that’s outside the regime and all the bad actors are going there. I think if that were the case, we would know it. If there was one outlier that was just being very irresponsible and selling materials to malicious actors, first of all, it would be pretty obvious. Pretty clearly, there are various actors that could apply a lot of pressure on that company or that country in question to cease and desist.
Jaime Yassif: And the other thing is that fundamentally, to last, these companies have to have a business model that works in a legitimate bioscience sector. So a company that’s well known to be selling materials to bad actors isn’t going to last as a commercial enterprise. You can’t build a business on that. And so I just don’t think that’s actually a viable business model. If you can reduce the search space from all synthesis to like one tiny slice, where —
Rob Wiblin: Customers of this one dodgy company are always the ones that —
Jaime Yassif: Yeah, that’s a much more tractable problem for the intelligence community and the security sector to focus their attention on. If that’s where you are, you’re in a much better place than if there’s nothing. So I would push back pretty hard on this proposition that if you have defectors, the whole thing is pointless. I don’t think that’s actually true.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. That’s a good point. The final group is publishers. What’s interesting about them?
Jaime Yassif: Got to give them credit where credit is due. Journal publishers, as of years ago, recognized this problem. They formed a network. They have made joint declarations about their intention to screen publications more vigorously for biosecurity. They put processes in place, at least some of them have. And so I think generally their intentions are good and they have taken steps in the right direction.
Jaime Yassif: In my view, they need our help and we need to go further. And the reason I think that is I still see papers coming out that I, or my colleagues in the biosecurity community, view as arguably information hazards — and that includes in the last year. We see things come out and just really we question whether that really should have come out in the way that it did. And reasonable people can disagree about what the criteria should be or whether those papers should come out in that form. But my personal view is that we’re not where we need to be, notwithstanding the really great efforts that the community has already taken. .
Jaime Yassif: The other thing I will say, from the perspective of publishers — I’ve heard them say this and they’re right. They’ve said to me, “Look, we don’t want to be single-handedly responsible for mitigating all biosecurity threats associated with publication of research. You guys need to handle this upstream, don’t dump all the responsibility on us.” I think that’s totally a valid argument, which is consistent with our lifecycle approach, where we’re trying to go as upstream as we can and hit it every opportunity.
Jaime Yassif: The other thing I would say is, again, we should view the publication community as allies, where we could help them do better and give them more resources. Because they, like everyone else, have finite resources and time. And the process for looking at publications, figuring out how to deal with them is not trivial. It’s hard. And so I think they could use some help.
Jaime Yassif: The other thing that has happened in recent years that has made this more complicated is you don’t just have traditional academic journals anymore. You can now also have these instant self-publication functions like bioRxiv, right. And people can just post and it’s 24 hours and it’s up. And so that’s great — my partner’s a scientist and he makes use of that and it’s awesome. It has totally democratized publication and I think it’s fabulous. But it does make this harder, and we need to figure out how to deal with biosecurity considerations in that kind of environment.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Interesting. It seems like even if you could just get the most prestigious journals on board, that would go a decent part of the way, because then it means that scientists would think ahead of time, “I want to publish in a really prestigious journal and none of them will accept it if it’s too dangerous. So I’ve got to think ahead of time about where the bar is for them.” You’re not going to be keen to put [your paper] up on bioRxiv if you’re a cutting-edge biosynthesis person.
Jaime Yassif: I think you make a great point. I think that if the leading journals in the community that are most prestigious take a stance, then that could propagate downstream to other journals as well that they could start to also emulate those approaches. So I think that that’s a really good point and it’s another way where a non-100% coverage answer could still —
Rob Wiblin: It moves the needle.
Jaime Yassif: — get us moving in the right direction. Yeah, exactly. Move the needle, that’s what we need to do.
Biggest weaknesses of NTI platform [01:42:33]
Rob Wiblin: Okay. Zooming back out again. What’s the biggest weakness of the platform that you’ve laid out here? What worries you?
Jaime Yassif: I think there are a few hurdles. One of them is we just need to get really broad international support for this. We don’t have to have 100% coverage, but I think for this to really work meaningfully, we’re going to have to get a lot of countries on board and a lot of communities on board. I think it’s in all our shared interests to do this, but we have a lot of work ahead of us to get there. I think we can set this in motion with very clear ideas about what this should do. And the challenge will be over time for the organization to stay focused about reducing the greatest risks and threats and be very clear-minded about what it’s trying to do, and continue to develop concrete ideas for really reducing the risk.
Jaime Yassif: I think a failure mode is that if there’s weak leadership for this organization, or it drifts over time and loses its focus, it could be less effective. So it’s really important to have strong leadership that really gets it — has the right combination of people that are politically savvy and know how to continue to maintain the relationships with all the key players, and also really technically astute and focused in developing innovative solutions.
Jaime Yassif: And so it’s really actually hard for an organization to do all those things. I mean, it’s totally doable, but we have to get really excellent people who are really dedicated and really smart and analytical about how to solve these problems. So I think we can do it and I’m optimistic. And it’s basically our top priority on the bio team and it’s a huge priority for NTI across the board. We’re really committed to this, but we have to work hard to set it in motion in a way that it’s likely to succeed.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. There’s quite a lot of different actors here, obviously. For each one, there’s probably several things that we would like them to do differently than what they’re doing now. If you could only get a few parts of it taken up, which parts would you prioritize most highly?
Jaime Yassif: I would start with the places where we have a really clear theory of change, a lot of leverage, and a clear set of actions. So I think DNA synthesis screening is definitely part of that core package, and we’ve developed a pretty concrete set of actions and we’re actually going to start there in terms of the scope of activity of this entity, this organization.
Jaime Yassif: The other two places where there’s a lot of leverage is at the beginning and the end of the cycle. I think funders have tremendous leverage. So if we can get this Bio Funders’ Compact sorted and get funders to all get behind doing a biosecurity review, that would be huge. I think that’s probably one of the most impactful things we can do to shift the incentive structures and the mindset of people. And then at the other end, I think publishers also have a lot of leverage. So if you get the funders and the publishers, that would make a huge change.
Rob Wiblin: On the funders, if I remember correctly, the National Institutes of Health in the US is an enormous funder. It’s just like a giant in the field, is that right?
Jaime Yassif: Yes. Tens of billions of dollars a year.
Rob Wiblin: So maybe if you could move that. I guess they’re pretty high on the list of groups you’d like to persuade. And they might actually have the resources, given their scale, to do a really thorough job, to hire the right people, to have the processes.
Jaime Yassif: So the US government, the US Department of Health & Human Services — which oversees the National Institutes of Health — does have a process in place. And in fact, during the Obama administration, there was all this concern about gain-of-function research with certain pathogens of pandemic potential, and the US government put in place a two-year moratorium on some of that work.
Jaime Yassif: And then at the White House level, they revisited the questions of, what should the governance requirements look like? What should pre-funding review look like? They put out something called P3CO, which is an acronym. It sounds suspiciously like C3PO — it’s not an accident: there was a sci-fi nerd in the mix that may have made that happen, which is a fun side note. And HHS, Health & Human Services, which oversees NIH, was the first to actually tackle it and try to make that real at an institutional level.
Jaime Yassif: If you look at the news, there’s a lot of live conversation about how that’s going and whether or not it’s robust enough. And some criticisms of this process is it hasn’t been as transparent as some in the biosecurity community would like it to be. So there’s a call for more transparency about who’s involved in the process and what’s involved in the process. And there are some open questions about criteria, like are they stringent enough? And I read in the news recently that in recent years NIH had changed their criteria and made them less stringent.
Jaime Yassif: And so that actually has gotten a ton of attention recently, because there’s so much discussion about gain-of-function research and what should and shouldn’t happen and what’s responsible and not. And so it’s an active subject of discussion in the media. And I know that the White House is also thinking about this a lot, and trying to figure out how we can step up our game and do a better job. So it’s a live issue and absolutely the US government is a huge funder of bioscience research. And if they get it right, that could really help the field as a whole.
Rob Wiblin: All right. You’ve answered basically all the questions I’ve got here. So probably time to move on from the NTI policy agenda here, both on shaping intent and constraining capabilities. Is there anything you’d like to say to pull things together, or an overall remark?
Jaime Yassif: I really appreciate this conversation, and it’s been really rich and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this in intense detail. I would say it’s a really interesting time and it’s what I view as a pivot point, because our community has been looking at these kinds of questions of how we prevent deliberate and accidental release events for years. And we’ve struggled to come up with a framework for where we could advance meaningful projects that will actually reduce risks in real ways that stand up to scrutiny. And I think we’re making some headway in terms of coming up with new approaches or refreshed approaches. So I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to make a lot of progress and it’s exciting to see the biosecurity community really move forward with some of these initiatives.
Jaime Yassif: I have to say that part of the credit that’s due for all this progress is the EA community — in particular, the EA funders that have put so much money into this field. Certainly that includes the Open Philanthropy Project. It also includes Longview and others. I don’t want to leave anyone off, but there are a lot of people who have really focused on this. And I do think that it’s making a difference. There are a lot more of us than there used to be, whose full-time job is to think about biosecurity and how to reduce risks. We’re able to make progress in a way that wasn’t possible 10 years ago, and a lot of it is thanks to the EA community. So I’m just really grateful for that support and the commitment to this issue set.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Beautiful. You’ve definitely laid out a lot of hours of work.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. There’s a lot.
Rob Wiblin: Much more than 80,000 hours. I suspect tens of millions of hours. So yeah, with that in mind, let’s switch over to thinking of concrete career advice or things that someone out there in the listening audience might actually be able to do, if they’re thinking, “This is really cool and maybe at some point in my career, I’d like to be able to help out with this.”
Rob Wiblin: Just a spontaneous first question is that it seems like there’s just a lot of conversations that have to be had for these things to happen. Because you’ve got to go around and talk to all these different groups — who are kind of on board, but they’ve got other things to think about — and persuade them that they really want to do this because it’s important. What is the staffing requirement for that? And do you just need a lot of people with a deep reasonable level of technical ability and good social skills or good persuasive skills? So diplomacy?
Jaime Yassif: That’s a great question. And I would say, there are a few bottlenecks in this field that we really need to address. One of them is just the talent pipeline. Because this hasn’t been a well-funded field until pretty recently, there haven’t been a lot of strong incentives for people to pursue a career in this field, and there’s just not a lot of… There’s a lot of expertise in pandemic response and preparedness and public health–related work, because that has been a live issue for a long time. But a lot of the stuff that I’m talking about has been underfunded and under-resourced.
Jaime Yassif: And so we at NTI have a lot of work to do and we’re bandwidth constrained, and we’re always trying to make hard decisions about how to prioritize our time. But we’re also trying to hire talented people to help us do the work. And it’s hard to find enough talent, frankly. I know that a lot of smart people in this space are thinking about how to expand the pipeline and that’s great, and we at NTI also want to be doing that.
Jaime Yassif: In terms of the skills that we’re looking for, I think there are lots of different types of skillsets. One combination of skills that is really hard to find — but I think incredibly important — is people who understand technical issues and can think about things from a detailed technical perspective of some kind of training in bioinformatics or bioscience or computer science or something like that. But also who can write well and who understand the international policy context and some of the risk frameworks and the institutions that we’re operating in, and can help us put it together.
Rob Wiblin: When you put it that way, I understand why it’s hard to hire.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. And I think we’re going to have to train a younger generation of people to have that combination of skillsets. I would say there are some people who have that skillset, but institutions sort of conspire against you. Usually you’re pushed in one pipeline or the other: you either become a policy person or you become a technical person. If you want to have both skillsets, you have to be pretty determined.
Rob Wiblin: Pretty pushy.
Jaime Yassif: There are people like that, but you have to be pretty determined and go against the grain of what the institutions are trying to tell you to do, including educational institutions. So we have to create new career paths that make that easier, and new educational curricula that are more interdisciplinary.
Jaime Yassif: I think creativity and thinking outside the box is so important. There are a lot of people out there who can cite what other people have said or tell you the history of X, Y, Z, or cite facts. What we need more of is people who can take information and integrate it, and think about a problem they’re trying to solve and develop a creative solution and think outside the box. That is also really hard to find, and we desperately need more of that.
Rob Wiblin: I was just going to say, there’s… is it the American Academy of Sciences Policy Fellowship or —
Yeah. So the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, and they have a Science & Technology Policy Fellowship. I did that fellowship, that’s what got me into US government. It was fantastic. It’s a great opportunity. Most of the people who go through that program have a PhD or a graduate degree in science or engineering. There are a few social scientists in the mix that have a PhD in their respective fields. You have to be a US citizen to do it, but it’s a great program. It is a great pipeline for creating the kind of people that I’m talking about.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay. So you’ve kind of laid out one archetype that’s really important to pursue this agenda, which is people with a reasonable level of technical knowledge and also a reasonable understanding of policy, law or government, and possibly international organizations as well. Are there any other archetypes that people should have in mind? Or are there important skills that you might need in order to get all of this done?
Jaime Yassif: Another archetype that I’m also imagining in a person that I would love to find, is people who can think about nation-states and their capabilities and intentions and deterrence — all this traditional international security thinking — and apply it in a biosecurity context. I think that area is really neglected. We’re trying to build out some of that thinking at NTI. We need more people who really can do that.
Jaime Yassif: So there are people who have that training or mindset, and there are people who understand biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, or even the technical issues. And there are people who look at the history of the Biological Weapons Convention and study and look to the past, right? But there are very few people whose job it is to think about “How do we create a future world where there are good incentive structures and institutions in place where bioweapons are less attractive to states?” And we need people like that.
Rob Wiblin: Cool. Yeah. Are there any other folks on this list? Plausibly you just need lots of operations staff as well, talented people who can do the fundraising, the communication, all of the other supporting roles within NTI or these organizations you’re trying to build.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah, absolutely. There are lots of different roles. There are some people who really like to provide support and they’re really enthusiastic about the mission. Some people really like to plan meetings and make events happen, and that’s where they want to focus their time.
Jaime Yassif: Other skills that are really valuable are project management. You have a big, complicated project that has lots of moving pieces and different roles — how do you make sure it stays on schedule? How do you make it happen? That is a skill. You can be super smart and come up with a lot of theoretical constructs, but if you can’t manage a project, it’s going to be very hard for you to make progress. So that’s another skillset that’s valuable.
How people outside of the US can best contribute [01:54:14]
Rob Wiblin: I suspect that if I applied to the US Department of Defense, they wouldn’t hire me because I’m not an American, among other things. There’s quite a lot of other people, quite a lot of non-Americans in the audience, and maybe people who don’t feel they’re suited to a military or a security career. How could people in those buckets potentially contribute to all this?
Jaime Yassif: Yeah, absolutely. So the US is not the center of the universe. There are other countries that are doing important work. And what I would say is because of where the money has been, where the institutions have been, there are a lot of people who have some degree of biosecurity skills and knowledge that are either in the US or in Western Europe. A lot of those folks are in the UK, including yourself.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Including both of us, as of right now.
Jaime Yassif: That’s correct. And then as you step outside Western Europe and the United States, there are very few biosecurity experts. And I think that really needs to change. We are going to be able to drive progress much more effectively if you have smart, thoughtful, biosecurity people in countries and regions around the world. I can tell you when we plan international meetings, we’re always trying to get more diversity of geographic representation. And it’s really hard to find biosecurity experts from all over the place.
Jaime Yassif: And so to the extent that there are people in the effective altruism community from all these other countries, we really need you to play that role in your respective country. Both because you can come to the table and represent a perspective from a different country or region — which would be different from an American or an English or a Western European perspective — and because you have an opportunity to shape the thinking in your respective governments.
Jaime Yassif: And as we were saying before, we need more governments to take this seriously if we’re going to shift the dynamics and make more progress. So in some countries there are opportunities in government. In other countries, there might be opportunities in non-governmental organizations. Some places will have both. And I think there’s a great example: I participated earlier today in this really cool international conference, SBA.1, which is the Inaugural International Conference on Synthetic Biology and Biosecurity. It’s the first time they’ve had one of those in Africa, and a very smart person, Jeffrey Odem, really spearheaded this and organized it and fundraised for it and made it happen. A few years ago, he was a biosecurity fellow at a program that was funded by Open Philanthropy and organized by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. And he became more interested in biosecurity. And then he decided to build a program in Africa to advance synthetic biology and biosecurity on the continent.
Jaime Yassif: And that’s fantastic. I would love to see more of that. There’s a lot of opportunity. If you don’t see the institution that you’d like to see in your country or in your region, there are more resources than there used to be, and you know, you could build it. There’ll be a lot of people in this community enthusiastic to support you.
Rob Wiblin: Just to check if I’m understanding you right. It seems like for a lot of this agenda, given that it is so international in scope, it’s not just enough to have the US government be on board. You want to have many countries sympathetic, or even actively supporting, saying that this is an important priority to them. We have a nontrivial audience in India actually.
Jaime Yassif: Fabulous.
Rob Wiblin: I guess because of the English language. If you were someone there, potentially becoming the top expert in India on GCBRs and biosecurity and these kind of issues, maybe that’s imaginable. Because there’s just not that much competition there, there’s not a lot of people trying to do that. And then I guess you could plausibly be hired by the Indian government or become the person who the Indian government asks for advice on this kind of issue, if it comes up in places like the UN or elsewhere. Is that a conceivable path for someone?
Jaime Yassif: So first of all, the idea of a community of biosecurity experts and GCBR experts growing up in India, either in civil society or government, I would love to see that. That would be incredible. India has a very important voice in the international community, and I think shaping that voice would have a lot of potential impact and it would be great. And I really encourage that. I don’t have enough insights into the inner workings of the Indian government and how they hire to know how easy it would be to get a job there and whatnot. But I think there is also a robust civil society there, it is a democracy, and we would love to see more biosecurity experts and GCBR experts in India. That would be amazing.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. What about countries more broadly, are you generally painting that as a plausible path for someone, or something that they should consider at least if they can’t migrate to the US?
Jaime Yassif: Absolutely. I think the argument you’re making about the value of becoming a biosecurity expert or a GCBR expert in your country is really valuable for all the reasons we’ve already said. And I think that the marginal impact of that is much higher than having another biosecurity expert in the US. I mean, obviously we need more expertise in the US and there’s more work to be done in the US. But I think that there’s much more work to be done overseas. That’s where the heavy lift is.
Jaime Yassif: It doesn’t mean that you start by going to your… You’ve got to learn from someone, right? So when you’re early in your career, it’s good to work for an organization or partner with someone who can teach you and train you. And so you’ve got to find a way to learn, but then if you can take that knowledge and go to your country and build a more knowledgeable community around yourself there, that’s incredible impact in my view.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think a lot of people will be happy to hear that, because they can have the sense of like, “I’ve got to work in some prestigious defense thing or bust.” And it sounds like it’s definitely not the case.
Jaime Yassif: No. Actually, I would encourage people to take a different approach.
Academia vs think tanks vs nonprofits vs government [01:59:25]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Interesting. This is possibly too big a question to answer, but we’ve talked about lots of different kinds of institutions here, and I wonder how people who care about GCBR security issues should weigh up careers in academia versus think tanks and nonprofits like NTI versus national governments versus international orgs. Do any of those seem usually more promising than another?
Jaime Yassif: So I would say you can’t a priori say that one is more promising than the other. I can make some general statements. I think you can make an impact in any of these places. I will say that in academia, it can be a little harder sometimes because I think it really depends on whether your academic institution is going to support you in doing work that doesn’t fall neatly within a defined academic discipline. It doesn’t fit neatly in bioengineering or molecular biology, and it doesn’t fit neatly in political science or in public policy — it straddles two disciplines.
Jaime Yassif: I would say in theory, you can make a difference in an academic context, but I think that institutional structures in academia are going to have to flex in order to make that easier. And actually, this is a call to EA funders: if you want to accelerate progress in that domain, you might want to consider establishing certain academic positions to make that more achievable, because I think it’s kind of hard right now just by the way things are set up.
Jaime Yassif: But you know, Megan Palmer is at Stanford and she’s doing amazing work. She’s an example of a very talented academic that’s leading really important conversations. And because she’s in an academic setting, she’s free to explore things in a conceptual way. Her approach to addressing this issue set is a little different and quite complementary to some of the stuff that we’re doing at NTI, which is a nonprofit. And we actually work with her because she brings something different to the conversation, which we really value.
Jaime Yassif: In terms of governments, I think anyone who has a chance to work in a government in their respective country or an international organization, I would absolutely — even if you don’t want to spend your whole career there — I think it’s a great idea to spend at least a year or two checking it out. Because once you learn how the inside of the machine works, you’re going to be much more effective on the outside and trying to shape it.
Jaime Yassif: I started my career working in a non-governmental organization. I spent all my time trying to shape what government did, but government was a bit of a black box to me. Then I went into government and came back out and I feel like I’m much more effective at what I do because I understand how the machine works, because I was inside the belly of the beast. And I would recommend that.
Jaime Yassif: I think that’s true for both governments and for international organizations, like WHO and the UN. And that brings me to another point, which is that you don’t have to spend your entire life in one institution or one kind of institution. And in fact, I think you’re likely to be more effective at problem solving if you move between different types of institutions. You’ll have more perspective about how different parts of the system work and you’ll have more relationships and you’ll be better at problem solving creatively.
Rob Wiblin: Occasionally I hear people say something that’s kind of like, if you have the opportunity to take a role in government, then that’s likely to be much more impactful than developing policy outside of government, because you can actually just try to write the policy there. But I feel like conceptually, that can’t quite be right, because these roles are so complementary.
Rob Wiblin: Because people, once they’re inside government, then they don’t have any time to think about what they should actually be doing a lot of the time. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard. So they need people outside, at think tanks, in academia or elsewhere, figuring out once you actually have a policy-shaping role, what should you be doing? Because it actually requires a lot of conversations, a lot of deep background understanding and so on. So it seems like to some degree how impactful these roles are is tied together, and they can’t radically differ from one another because of their deep complementary nature.
Jaime Yassif: I’m generally sympathetic to that argument. I basically agree with what you’re saying. I think that’s right. And if you’ve spent time in both of those sectors, you’ll understand that very intuitively and I think it’s very true. They absolutely are complementary in the way that you’re describing, and when they work together well, it can be a beautiful thing and a lot of stuff happens.
Jaime Yassif: What I’ll say about having spent some time inside of government: you are closer to the levers of power. And so you can write policies or make decisions if you’re in a place where you have influence as opposed to a tiny cog in a huge machine, right? You have to be in the right place with the right leadership and the right authorities and opportunities.
Jaime Yassif: So yeah, you can be close to the levers of power. You can write the policy, you can shape the policy, but you’re more constrained. Governments tend to be fairly conservative institutions. There are a lot of voices that need to be heard. There are a lot of rules. And so while in the best situation, you might have a lot of power, you don’t necessarily have a ton of freedom. And as you point out, you also don’t necessarily have time to do deep research. That’s not your job if you’re actually writing policy.
Jaime Yassif: On the other hand, in the NGO community, you have less power. The way that we exert influence is for the most part convincing other people to do things, not by doing things ourselves. But we have more freedom to take different actions. We have more freedom to speak publicly about our views. We have more time to think creatively. And so they are complementary. And I think it’s great to try both and see what feels right.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Maybe one way of synthesizing this is there’s moments when the minister is really on board with your thing, and says, “Please come in. I want to hire you. I want you to draft the regulations for me.”
Jaime Yassif: Fabulous.
Rob Wiblin: When that happens, you should absolutely go and do that. Because those occasions only come up fairly rarely. And you’ll be crossing the finish line at that point, actually getting things done. But the reason you’re going to have all of that impact at that final moment is because all of this preparation has been done — potentially by you and lots of other people figuring out what you should actually draft in those regulations once you get the golden opportunity to do so.
Jaime Yassif: Yeah. I think that there’s a lot of truth in that. I mean, there are moments in government, in the US and in other governments, where the stars will just align. Where there are people that you know, who share your worldview and your priorities. And they’ve created an opening to make some change and they want you to be involved and you’re going to be able to make an impact. Great. Go for it.
Jaime Yassif: Sometimes there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to set up that moment in time, and it’s where the stars align. You can’t assume that’s going to happen all the time. I think the only exception I would offer is you don’t always know that the golden moment is going to happen before you go in. Sometimes you just need to go in and take a leap of faith that something good will come of it. And the other thing is, even if you don’t make a huge impact, just going in for a year or two and learning how the system works is incredibly valuable —
Rob Wiblin: Future career capital.
Jaime Yassif: — and it’ll multiply your potential for impact downstream if you leave government and work somewhere else. You’ll just be so much more knowledgeable and credible and you’ll know what you’re doing. And so I would say absolutely, go for it if you have this golden opportunity, but that shouldn’t be the standard for entering government service.
International cooperation [02:05:44]
Rob Wiblin: We’ve got quite a few audience questions for you. Are you happy to field a handful?
Jaime Yassif: Yeah, happy to do that.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. The first question was about government policy and civil society actors in foreign countries. How open are they to communication and cooperation?
Jaime Yassif: I think a lot of other governments and countries around the world and civil society organizations have a shared interest in reducing catastrophic biological risks. And I think that they are, as a general matter, incredibly open to collaboration and communication. I think it’s easier for civil society organizations to collaborate just because they’re — as I explained a few minutes ago — they are less constrained by all the rules and constraints that governments might face. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many biosecurity organizations in countries around the world as we’d like to see. So I think it would be great to have more partners to collaborate with on these important issues.
Jaime Yassif: In terms of governments, I think it can be complicated. Some governments are more open to collaborating on this and others less so. It depends on what their current policy positions are and how important biosecurity is to them right now and what the specific ask is. If the ask of them — the thing we’re trying to advance — comports with and is consistent with their current state of national policy, or if it pushes them a little bit outside their comfort zone. So it really depends on the issue.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. And they also asked, do you think COVID has increased or decreased their willingness to communicate and cooperate internationally?
Jaime Yassif: COVID’s really an interesting milestone in our longer journey to address these risks. These risks that we’ve been talking about have existed long before COVID. And the difference that COVID has created is it’s drawn a lot more attention to this issue set. And we have this phenomenon that has been described as a cycle of panic and neglect after a major biological incident. Like the anthrax attacks of 2001, like the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa, and now COVID. There is a moment in time and a political window of opportunity for change and taking big steps to reduce risks.
Jaime Yassif: And then as time passes after those big crises, people lose interest and attention spans wane and the money dries up and progress stalls. I think the thing that’s special about COVID is just the scale of it. I think it has broadened the Overton window in terms of what people think is the magnitude of the risk that we’re dealing with.
Jaime Yassif: My experience that I can speak to personally is that I’ve gone to international meetings where people are talking about an Ebola-scale event that they’re worried about. And that’s really important to work on, and I applaud all those efforts. But I’ve definitely been in a position where I’ve said, “This is important, but let’s also think about something that could be happening on multiple continents at the same time. Let’s also think about something that could reach the scale of millions of people.” Sometimes it just didn’t get a lot of traction, people just didn’t want to engage. It was either they would just ignore the comment or set it aside or would just say, “Well, a smaller event is already bad enough.”
Jaime Yassif:And so I think with COVID, we’ve had more than five million deaths and in excess of 260 million cases — and those are just the cases we know about. And there have been trillions of dollars in economic losses. So it’s been a global tragedy, but I would say that it has opened people’s minds to the scale of pandemic threats that the world faces and what we really need to be —
Rob Wiblin: How bad these things can get.
Jaime Yassif: That’s right. It provides us with an opportunity to say, “We need to think not only about responding to the current pandemic, but to prevent and mitigate future pandemics. Which could be as bad as COVID or could be worse than COVID — including more than one order of magnitude worse.” We can say that credibly. And I think people take that more seriously than they would’ve done before the pandemic.
Rob Wiblin: Another audience question, kind of on a similar theme, was how can we maintain international cooperation on global health security in an environment characterized by high levels of strategic competition between countries?
Jaime Yassif: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think it came in over Twitter, in response to your poll. This era of great power competition that we’re in is making global cooperation on key issues harder. But I am optimistic that this is an area where we could have cooperation, including between countries that have tensions in other areas.
Jaime Yassif: First of all, I think we can all agree that we have a shared interest in reducing pandemic risks. There are genuine shared interests there. And I think everyone around the world, without exception, is suffering from the impacts of COVID and would like to have a brighter future where this is less of a risk.
Jaime Yassif: But there’s also a historical example that I think of when I think of this question: during the Cold War, at the height of tensions between the United States and Russia, there were Track Two dialogues between scientists who were focused on reducing nuclear risks. And they were able to have an open line of communication about technical issues that were actually pretty sensitive, about nuclear weapons, between scientists when the governments couldn’t talk to each other directly and it was too tense.
Jaime Yassif: And I think that’s a really important historical example, and one that we try to emulate in the biosecurity space. There’s room for biosecurity dialogues between countries that otherwise might have tensions between them to talk about these issues, and to include scientists — because scientists are really good at talking to each other across barriers. And I think that that’s a real path to progress, and I think we should be pushing forward in those areas for biosecurity. And it’s something that NTI is actively pursuing.
Best things about living in the US, UK, China, and Israel [02:11:19]
Rob Wiblin: All right. Well, we’ve been going a while and you’ve boldly fielded every question, except for this last one. In prepping, I found out that you’ve been fortunate enough to live in quite a few countries.
Jaime Yassif: That’s right.
Rob Wiblin: You’re in the UK with me now, but you’ve also lived in the US of course, and Israel and China.
Jaime Yassif: That’s right.
Rob Wiblin: I’m normally a connoisseur of complaints.
Jaime Yassif: I’ve noticed that about you.
Rob Wiblin: [laughs] I do love hearing about the negative, but I’m going to fight my negativity bias with this question and ask, what’s one thing that you liked about each of these countries?
Jaime Yassif: My favorite thing about each of these places. Okay. So one thing that makes me feel very American, the thing that I think is wonderful about the US, is just the optimism and dynamism and the “Yes We Can” spirit, and the drive for innovation and the risk tolerance. I think that’s fabulous. I think it is a huge driver of progress in the US, and something that I really strongly identify with and makes me proud to be an American.
Jaime Yassif: In terms of the United Kingdom, I live here now. There are lots of things I love about it. Two things that I think are really awesome — the lived experience here in the UK is so fabulous. There’s something that’s special in the UK that you don’t have in other places, and that’s pubs. The pub is this wonderful community gathering space that is very inclusive. And people from all walks of life come together, and it’s very informal and you have great food and great beer. And it’s a really high-quality experience and it’s not expensive and it’s not fussy. And I think we try to have pubs in the US, but we totally fail. It’s just not the same thing. It’s either like a dive bar or like a very fancy, fussy place that isn’t quite as laid back. So I think the pubs in England are just really special. I have to say two positive things. I think the gardening scene in the UK is amazing. I have a garden. You’ve seen it. I love gardening. I love BBC Gardeners World and Monty Don — he’s my hero. It’s fabulous.
Rob Wiblin: Okay. So the US has a great culture that supports entrepreneurship and science and progress. And the UK has pubs and gardening.
Jaime Yassif: I’m not comparing. I’m just saying things that I like.
Rob Wiblin: These are good things. These are good things.
Jaime Yassif: I see what you tried to do there. I’m not going along with that narrative. China, I only spent six months living in China and it was back in 2005. I think the thing that was most dramatic and eye-opening about that is just the pace of change. China’s changing so quickly — rapid economic development, cities are being built up quickly, people being lifted out of poverty. The ideologies about what middle-class people should be doing and what the roles in society are changing. And it was just really fascinating to watch that happening before my eyes. I’m just used to living in developed countries where the rate of change is quite low. And seeing that in China was just amazing. It was very eye-opening and just fascinating.
Jaime Yassif: Israel, I have a lot of family that has ties to Israel. I think the people in Israel are just really warm and open and lovely, and it’s really easy to connect with them. And they’re also just really direct. I think a lot of people in the EA community value directness. Israelis are very direct. I mean, this is a gross generalization — it’s not true of everyone. But the culture of discourse is very direct. And you might not always like what people are telling you, but you will know what they think. They will not be fooling you. And I think that can be very valuable sometimes.
Jaime Yassif: So there you go. There’s my river of positivity for you. I hope it didn’t bum you out.
Rob Wiblin: I really want to ask about the bad stuff, but we’ll have to wait for a followup interview maybe.
Jaime Yassif: You’ll have to wait.
Rob Wiblin: Find out what you don’t like. This has been super fun. My guest today has been Jaime Yassif. Thanks so much for coming on the 80,000 Hours Podcast, Jaime.
Jaime Yassif: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you today, and thanks for all the great work that you guys are doing at 80,000 Hours.
Rob’s outro [02:14:58]
Rob Wiblin: If you’d like to dedicate your career to reducing global catastrophic biological risks, you should think about applying to speak with our team one-on-one for free.
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Audio mastering and technical editing for this episode by Ryan Kessler and Ben Cordell.
Full transcripts and an extensive collection of links to learn more are available on our site and put together by Katy Moore.
Thanks for joining, talk to you again soon.