CSER COVID-19 project update, 2 May 2020

02 May 2020

CSER is a research institute dedicated to the study and mitigation of risks that could lead to human extinction or civilizational collapse. It remains our view that the COVID-19 pandemic does not constitute a risk on this scale, but that it underlines very clearly our lack of global preparedness for a range of catastrophic risks, including climate change and nuclear war as well as pandemics. This is not to understate the harm this pandemic will cause, but instead to assert our resilience.

We are therefore treating the current crisis as a vital case study of how humanity responds to global risks, and we will make sure that it’s lessons are not only understood by academics, but effectively communicated and implemented around the world. However, where our work and expertise touch upon more immediate challenges relating to COVID-19 we are delighted to be able to provide assistance. Since our last update at the end of March this has included the following:


CSER’s Executive Director Catherine Rhodes together with CSER researchers Simon Beard, Seán S. Ó hÉigeartaigh, Clarissa Rios Rojas, Haydn Belfield and Lalitha Sundaram were co-authors of a paper currently under review at PLOS Biology: “Informing management of lockdowns and a phased return to normality: a Solution Scan of non-pharmaceutical options to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission” (preprint available at https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/CA5RH )

This work is a collaboration between BioRISC (the Biosecurity Research Initiative at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge), Conservation Evidence based in the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. It was created by documenting our experience of options, consulting guidance, contacting people working in different countries to explore the range of options and crowd-sourcing ideas through social media. We identify 275 options to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission in five key areas: (1) physical isolation, (2) reducing transmission through contaminated items, (3) enhancing cleaning and hygiene, (4) reducing spread through pets, and (5) restricting disease spread between areas. For any particular problem this long list will quickly be winnowed down to a much shorter list of potential options based on relevance and practicality; this bespoke shortlist will be the subject of more detailed consideration.

This has been received widespread media coverage in the UK and internationally, including in the Telegraph, Independent, Sun, Mail, Times, New Zealand Herald, BBC News, ITV, Sky News and TalkRadio. It has received positive engagement from the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government of Ireland and the Head of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team.

CSER affiliate Sam Weiss Evans and CSER’s co-director Seán S. Ó hÉigeartaigh where co-authors of a paper in the journal science: “Embrace experimentation in biosecurity governance” - Science 368, no. 6487 (2020): 138-140 ( https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6487/138 ) which draws on a workshop CSER hosted last year.

As biological research and its applications rapidly evolve, new attempts at the governance of biology are emerging, challenging traditional assumptions about how science works and who is responsible for governing. However, these governance approaches often are not evaluated, analyzed, or compared. This hinders the building of a cumulative base of experience and opportunities for learning. Consider “biosecurity governance,” a term with no internationally agreed definition, here defined as the processes that influence behavior to prevent or deter misuse of biological science and technology. Changes in technical, social, and political environments, coupled with the emergence of natural diseases such as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), are testing existing governance processes. This has led some communities to look beyond existing biosecurity models, policies, and procedures. But without systematic analysis and learning across them, it is hard to know what works. We suggest that activities focused on rethinking biosecurity governance present opportunities to “experiment” with new sets of assumptions about the relationship among biology, security, and society, leading to the development, assessment, and iteration of governance hypotheses.

This has received coverage from the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Media and Advice

CSER Researcher Clarissa Rios Rojas presented at a Webinar titled “The Uses and Misuses of Technology During the COVID-19 Crisis”, part of a series of webinars organized by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy on the theme Covid-19 Crisis: Global Crisis, Global Risk and Global Consequences (Her presentation is available here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czrZWq_NEDc&t=2594s )

CSER’s Academic Programme Manager, Simon Beard, has been invited to advise the UK’s Liberal Democrat party on policy relating to COVID-19. So far this has included

  • Briefing parliamentarians on issues in the governance of AI and data technologies being developed in response to COVID-19
  • Providing advice on how to reconcile public health and civil liberties in responsibiy transitioning out of the UK’s present lockdown (a summary of this advice is published here: https://www.libdemvoice.org/solving-the-locked-country-mystery-64131.html) 

CSER Researcher Haydn Belfield wrote in the Daily Mirror on the importance of Labour’s new Leader taking action on the governance of AI in response to COVID-19. https://www.cser.ac.uk/news/daily-mirror-labour-leader/ 

CSER’s Executive Director Catherine Rhodes was featured in an article for Politico Magazine, “The Next Pandemic: Rising Inequality” https://www.cser.ac.uk/news/politico-next-pandemic-rising-inequality/ 

Other resources

Like many people around the world, CSER researchers have been keeping up to date with many aspects of the pandemic via updates and analysis from the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/resources/COVID-19/index.html . The CHS is a leading centre for research into Global Catastrophic Biological Risks (GCBR) and is thus one of CSER’s key global research partners. They recently published a book on GCBRs, which can be found here https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-36311-6 

One of the areas of COVID-19 response where CSER has been able to make significant contributions is in the management of AI and other novel technologies being developed to help tackle it. Other recent perspectives on this problem have been developed by a range of organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/03/protecting-civil-liberties-during-public-health-crisis (a former CSER research partner) and the Ada Lovelace Institute ( https://www.adalovelaceinstitute.org/exit-through-the-app-store-how-the-uk-government-should-use-technology-to-transition-from-the-covid-19-global-public-health-crisis/. A key theme across many of these perspectives is how to ensure that AI solutions are both trustworthy and widely trusted by the public, which was the subject of a recent report lead by CSER researchers in collaboration with colleagues around the world https://arxiv.org/pdf/2004.07213.pdf

Another key question relates to how and when countries should consider leaving a state of lockdown. While CSER researchers have been involved in solution scanning for ways of achieving this in practice, we also recognise that the question is a moral one in that it involves weighing up a variety of economic, social and health based costs and benefits. The influential American economist Cass Sunstein has proposed using a pure cost benefit analysis to make this judgement https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-03-26/coronavirus-lockdowns-look-smart-under-cost-benefit-scrutiny, however our work on evaluating extreme technological risks highlights some of the problems this entails. We therefore welcome critical alternative perspectives by CSER advisor Peter Singer https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/when-will-lockdowns-be-worse-than-covid19-by-peter-singer-and-michael-plant-2020-04 and Matthew Adler https://thehill.com/opinion/healthcare/492437-a-better-way-to-grapple-with-benefit-cost-trade-offs-in-a-pandemic, who’s upcoming public lecture at CSER has had to be postponed due to the pandemic.

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