Global Catastrophic Biological Risks

Pandemics are as old as humanity, but in today’s interconnected world we are more vulnerable than ever. The increase in the capability and spread of biotechnology poses new risks, from accidental release to intentional misuse.

We have begun to develop a research agenda for Global Catastrophic Biological Risks. Our work has involved horizon-scanning for emerging issues in biotechnology, analysing gene drives, and debating gain-of-function research. On biosafety, we are developing strategies for promoting responsible research and innovation in collaboration with academics, biotech companies, and bio-hacker communities. On biosecurity, we have developed a collaborative strategy of next steps for the Biological Weapons Convention.

A natural pandemic could kill hundreds of millions of people, an engineered pandemic could kill many more, and threaten civilizational collapse.

Natural pandemic

The last great influenza pandemic killed between 2.5%-5% of the world population in 1918, far more than World War One. As recent scares over bird flu and swine flu show, this risk has not gone away. Though our scientific knowledge has improved, we are more densely populated, interconnected and entangled with zoonotic reservoirs than before. We need better surveillance, better (inter)national health systems, and better development and stockpiles of vaccines and medical countermeasures.


Estimated percentage of world population killed by the Black Death

However, there is a trade-off in natural pandemics between transmissibility and lethality – if a pathogen kills its host too quickly, the host can’t infect many other people. But due to biotechnological advances, it may soon be possible to engineer pathogens to be more infectious, more fatal, and to have a delayed onset – and so be far more dangerous.

Error or terror: Bad bugs or bad people

New breakthroughs like the targeted genome editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 are increasing our capabilities; and the cost of DNA sequencing/synthesis and the hurdle of expertise are rapidly decreasing. This growing biotechnological knowledge and capability will have many benefits – new and better drugs, improvements to agricultural productivity and environmental protection. But it is a dual-use technology, and so can also be misused in ways that cause harm.

Military hospital during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic

An engineered pandemic could escape from a lab, or it could be deliberately used as a weapon. During the 20th century several countries had state-run bioweapons programmes, and we know of several non-state groups that have attempted to acquire bioweapons.

Almost singlehandedly, one postdoc was recently able to recreate horsepox (similar to smallpox, which killed 300m in the 20th Century) from scratch in only six months. Capabilities that were once only in the hands of governments will soon be within reach of non-state actors.

A novel pathogen, designed to be deadlier than anything in nature, could severely affect the entire world. As Lord Rees has said “The global village will have its village idiots, and they'll have global range”.

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