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Shulammite Lim

Biosecurity: not just a cold

On its list of most urgent global issues, 80,000 hours includes biosecurity, pointing to the millions—even billions—of people that could potentially be affected by natural pandemics and new, scientifically engineered pathogens. Biorisk reduction reaches a whopping 15 out of 16 in the scale category, as outbreaks of pathogens can cause global catastrophe. Thankfully, this cause has gained some traction, as it ranks a 4 out of 12 on the neglectedness scale based on the over $1 billion spent by the US government for biosecurity purposes. Solvability has been assessed at a 4 out of 8, as there exist some possible ways to make progress toward biorisk reduction, with some support from experts.

Biosecurity includes many disease-related risks, including natural pandemics, bioterrorism, and accidental deployment of biological agents in research. These can be differentiated from global health issues in that they have relatively low-probability risks and potentially global impact, instead of continuing health issues that may be smaller in scope. The Open Philanthropy Project estimates that natural pandemics are likely the largest current threat, but novel biotechnology could contribute to heightened risk in future years.

The worst flu pandemic in the 20th century was the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which is believed to have caused 50-100 million deaths, or 3-5% of the world’s population then. If a similar pandemic were to break out today, that same percentage of the population would equal 288,000,000 people. This could be explained with the pathogen being more likely spread quickly courtesy of international travel, though modern medical advances may also reduce their potential impact.

Bioterrorism looms as a fear-inducing prospect and could take many forms. Some possibilities include a noncontagious biological agent like anthrax (e.g. Amerithrax, aka 2001 anthrax attacks), a noncontagious natural pathogen that has been “eradicated” and is no longer vaccinated against (e.g. smallpox, with the exception of its presence in research labs in Atlanta, Georgia, and Russia), and a contagious engineered pathogen, which may be created in dual use research.

“Dual use” research refers to research that could be used for both positive and negative effects. For example, there has been much controversy brewing over research intended to alter the H5N1 flu virus to make it transmissible between ferrets, which are used as a model for humans. With this type of research, two fearful possibilities lurk: scientists working on this project may accidentally release a harmful agent, or they may create a pathogen that allows the ill-intentioned to do their will with greater ease.

Biosecurity has mobilized multiple entities to surveil emerging threats and step up on research on novel therapeutics. It is a focus area of the Open Philanthropy Project, who has noted that though the U.S. has directed much funding to various aspects of biosecurity since 2012, philanthropic involvement in this field is still rather limited. To take action, new philanthropists can make the most impact in research and advocacy. Possible avenues of action include reaching out to policymakers to improve biosecurity initiatives, supporting research in the field, promoting stronger oversight of dual use research, and growing stockpiles of crucial medical countermeasures.