Why focus your career on preventing severe pandemics?
Advances in biotechnology may pose catastrophic risks.
COVID-19 has highlighted our vulnerability to worldwide pandemics and revealed weaknesses in our ability to respond in a coordinated and sophisticated way. And historical events like the Black Death and the 1918 Flu show that pandemics can be some of the most damaging disasters for humanity.
It is sobering to imagine the potential impact of a pandemic pathogen that is much more contagious than any we’ve seen so far, more deadly, or both.
Unfortunately, the emergence of such a pathogen is not out of the question, in particular in light of recent advances in biotechnology, which have allowed researchers to design and create biological agents much more easily and precisely than was possible before. If the field continues to advance in line with this progress, over the coming decades it may become possible for someone to create a pathogen that has been engineered to be substantially more contagious than natural pathogens, more deadly, and/or more difficult to address with standard countermeasures.
At the same time, it may become easier for states or malicious individuals to access these pathogens, and so potentially use them as weapons, because the relevant technologies are also becoming more widely available and easier to use.
Dangerous pathogens engineered for research purposes could also be released accidentally through a failure of lab safety.
Either scenario could result in a catastrophic ‘engineered pandemic’. Although making a pathogen as dangerous as possible will not generally be in the interest of states or other actors (in part because it would likely threaten their own forces), a purposefully engineered pandemic pathogen does have the potential to be arbitrarily deadly and spreadable. Possibilities of accidents, recklessness, and unusual malice suggest we can’t rule out the prospect of a pandemic pathogen being released that could kill a large percentage of the population.
How likely we are to face such a pathogen is a matter of debate. But over the next century the likelihood doesn’t seem negligible.
Could an engineered pandemic pose an existential threat to humanity? Again there is reasonable debate here. In the past, societies have recovered from pandemics as severe as the Black Death, which killed around a third or a half of Europeans. But from what we’ve seen, the future GCBRs look like some of the larger contributors to existential risk this century.
Reducing the risk of biological catastrophes by reducing the chances of potential outbreaks or preparing to mitigate their worst effects therefore seems very important.
There are clear actions we can take to reduce these risks.
- Work with government, academia, and industry to improve the governance of ‘gain-of-function’ research involving potential pandemic pathogens, commercial DNA synthesis, and other research and industries that may enable the creation of, or expand access to, particularly dangerous engineered pathogens. At times this may involve careful regulation.
- Strengthen international commitments to not develop or deploy biological weapons, e.g. the Biological Weapons Convention.
- Develop broad-spectrum testing, therapeutics, and other technologies and platforms that could be used to quickly test, vaccinate, and treat billions in case there is a large scale, novel outbreak.
Learn more about these ideas and others in our interview with Dr Cassidy Nelson.
Most existing work is not aimed at reducing risks of the worst outcomes.
The broader field of biosecurity and pandemic preparedness has made major contributions to GCBR reduction. Many of the best ways to prepare for more probable but less severe outbreaks also reduce GCBRs, so many people who are not concerned with GCBRs in particular still do work that is useful for reducing them. For this reason we think advancing parts of the broader field — especially in areas like vaccine research or broad-spectrum treatments — can be very valuable, even from the perspective of just trying to reduce the chances or severity of the worst potential outbreaks.
There may be even more valuable opportunities. It seems to be relatively uncommon for people in the broader field of biosecurity and pandemic preparedness to aim their work specifically at reducing GCBRs. Projects that disproportionately reduce GCBRs also seem to receive a relatively small proportion of health security funding. In our view, the costs of biological disasters grow nonlinearly with severity because of the increasing potential for the event to contribute to existential risk. This suggests that projects that reduce GCBRs in particular should receive more funding and attention than they currently seem to.
Moreover, insofar as more targeted interventions would be useful (and we’d guess they would be) the fact that there is comparatively little work targeted toward reducing GCBRs right now suggests that the area is somewhat ‘neglected’. This means that if you enter the field of biosecurity and pandemic preparedness aiming to reduce GCBRs, there may be particularly good opportunities to do so that others have not already pursued.
If you do enter the field aiming to reduce GCBRs, it might be easier to work on broader efforts that have more mainstream support first, and then transition to more targeted projects later.
If you are already working in biosecurity and pandemic preparedness (or a related field), this might be a good time to advocate for a greater focus on measures likely to help us with whatever outbreak surprises us next. There may be a greater openness to ideas in this area now, as people reflect on how underprepared we were for COVID-19.