Summary

Natural pandemics and new scientifically engineered pathogens could potentially kill millions or even billions of people. Future progress in synthetic biology is likely to increase the risk and severity of pandemics from engineered pathogens. But there are promising paths to reducing these risks through regulating potentially dangerous research, improving early detection systems and developing better international emergency response plans.

Our overall view

Sometimes recommended
This is a pressing problem to work on, but you may be able to have an even bigger impact by working on something else.

Scale  

15 / 16

Outbreaks of engineered pathogens could cause a global catastrophe.

Neglectedness  

4 / 12

Over $1 billion spent by US government.

Solvability  

4 / 8

Some plausible ways to make progress, with some expert support.

Profile depth

Exploratory 

Profile author

Roman Duda

This is one of many profiles we've written to help people find the most pressing problems they can solve with their careers. Learn more about how we compare different problems, see how we try to score them numerically, and see how this problem compares to the others we've considered so far.

What is the problem?

Natural pandemics and new scientifically engineered pathogens could potentially kill millions or even billions of people. Future progress in synthetic biology is likely to increase the risk and severity of pandemics from engineered pathogens. These risks could be substantially reduced through regulating potentially dangerous research, improving early detection systems and developing better international emergency response plans.

Why is this problem pressing?

What is our recommendation based on?

Learn more about the problem of pandemic preparedness in our detailed podcast on the topic with an expert in the field.

We think this problem is pressing because it is a focus area of The Open Philanthropy Project. Read their report on biosecurity.

The threat from engineered pathogens is also prioritised by the Global Priorities Project. Read about it in their policy brief on Unprecedented Technological Risks.

Why is it pressing?

  • Historically, natural pandemics have been responsible for huge numbers of deaths. For example, the 1918-20 “Spanish” flu epidemic killed 50-100 million people (3-5% of the world’s population at the time and more than all the casualties of World War I).
  • A serious outbreak of an engineered pathogen could result in even larger numbers of deaths. Engineered pathogens could be designed to have long incubation periods, to be highly lethal and highly infectious. If released, this could cause a global catastrophe.
  • Engineered pathogens are likely be much more difficult to control than other large threats like nuclear weapons, because the technology to produce or distribute them will likely require fewer resources and will be harder to monitor. However, less is invested in reducing the risks from engineered pathogens than the risks from nuclear weapons.
  • There are promising paths to reducing the risks through regulating potentially dangerous research, improving early detection systems and developing better international emergency response plans.

What are the major arguments against it being pressing?

The US government spends around $5 billion annually on programs related to biosecurity. This suggests that the area is more crowded than other pressing problems like risks from artificial intelligence and factory farming. However, less than 10% of this spending goes to programs focused exclusively on biosecurity (most programs include other goals such as scientific research and general disaster preparedness). Even less is spent specifically on risks from future engineered pathogens.

Key judgement calls made to prioritise this problem

  • It is feasible that in the next few decades we will develop highly lethal, highly infectious pathogens with long incubation periods.
  • The risks of outbreaks can be substantially reduced through regulation and better response plans.

What can you do about this problem?

What’s most needed to contribute to this problem?

Reducing the chance of outbreaks

  • Research to identify the largest biosecurity risks.
  • Improved monitoring, regulation and prevention of potentially dangerous research in synthetic biology (e.g. establishing new scientific norms and cultures of responsibility and safety).
  • Stricter containment in facilities conducting dangerous research.
  • Preventing the results of dangerous research from reaching malicious actors (e.g. preventing people from mail-ordering potentially harmful viruses).

Improving our capability to deal with outbreaks if they occur

  • Increasing the time available to respond to outbreaks by improving forecasting and early detection of outbreaks (for example by increasing the connections between disease surveillance systems).
  • Improving the tools to respond to outbreaks, for example with better and quickly available vaccines or treatments (e.g. developing broad-spectrum flu vaccines), and improved international emergency response or quarantine plans.

What skill sets and resources are most needed?

People with experience in the following areas:

  • Public health, especially regarding emerging diseases
  • Research and development in bioengineering and life sciences
  • Emergency response
  • Political advocacy
  • Anti-terrorism
  • Non-proliferation
  • Working within a regulatory bureaucracy.

Who is working on this problem?

According to this list of organisations collated by the Open Philanthropy Project, the main organisations are:

  • The US government – primarily the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health
  • The Skoll Global Threats Fund
  • The Gates Foundation.

The Open Philanthropy Project is also expecting to invest $10-15 million per year in this area.

What can you concretely do to help?

  • Work at the Open Philanthropy Project as a Senior Program Officer on Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness.
  • Work at the Gates foundation or the Global Skoll Threats Fund, focused on biosecurity.
  • Work for the US government, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
  • Work at synthetic biology labs to gain expertise in the area and to promote a culture of safety.
  • Work as a Science and Technology Analyst in the intelligence community and raise awareness of the problem.
  • If you have a public platform, for example as an academic, journalist or politician, promote and advocate for improving biosecurity.
  • Do a PhD in a relevant area of biology with the goal of becoming a biosecurity expert in the future.
  • More specific suggestions.

Further reading

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