Cross-posted to LessWrong

I recently finished reading Malcolm Dando’s 2006 book Bioterror and Biowarfare: A Beginner’s Guide, following Darius Meissner’s recommendation. I’d recommend the book for people who want to learn more about bioterror, biowarfare, and/or chemical weapons, and who don’t yet have extensive knowledge on those topics. (I fit that description, and have ranked the book as the 24th most useful-to-me of the 49 effective-altruism-related books I’ve read since learning about EA.) 

Here, I'll: 

  1. Summarise my six "main updates" from this book
  2. Share the Anki cards I made for myself when reading the book
    • I intend this as a lower-effort alternative to writing notes specifically for public consumption or writing a proper book review
    • If you want to download the cards themselves to import them into your own deck, follow this link
  3. Share a few final thoughts on whether you should read this book

(Since the first of those three parts seems the most valuable per word, and the second part is quite long, I’ve split parts 2 and 3 into comments below the post itself.)

My hope is that this post will be help some people to quickly:

  • Gain some key insights from the book
  • Work out whether reading/listening to the book is worth their time

(Note: Before commenting on this post, it may be worth considering whether your comment might pose an infohazard [see also]. Feel free to send me a direct message instead/first. Relatedly, I ran this post by someone before publishing it.)

My main updates from the book 

This section briefly summarises the main ways in which the book shifted my beliefs on relatively high-level points that seem potentially decision-relevant, as opposed to just specific facts I learned about. Note that each of those updates was more like a partial shift towards even more / somewhat less credence in something, rather than a total reversal of my previous views. (See also Update Yourself Incrementally.)

  1. It seems that the picture I’d gotten regarding bioterror and biowarfare from some talks/writings by EAs (especially The Precipice) was basically correct, not misleading, and not missing extremely important points
    • I already would’ve guessed that that’s the case, but my guess would’ve only had perhaps ~75% confidence.
      • So this updates me towards placing a bit more trust in the analysis I get from EAs (or at least professional high profile EA researchers)
        • Perhaps even on topics that those EAs have less than a year’s worth of expertise on themselves
  2. There was more overall state-level bioweapons activity during WW1, in the interwar period, and during WW2 than I’d have guessed
    • This should push my estimate of the existential risk posed by biotechnology/bioweapons slightly upwards
  3. Historically, bioweapons activity has focused more on anti-animal and anti-plant weapons/attacks, relative to anti-personnel ones, than I’d have guessed
    • Perhaps this should make me think of the “bio” part of anthropogenic biorisk as “risks from biotechnology/bioweapons”, rather than “risks from engineered pandemics”?
      • Because this suggests some of the risk might come not from human pandemics, but rather from anti-animal or anti-plant attacks causing major agricultural shortfalls which in turn indirectly harm the long-term future via the sorts of paths that ALLFED and Beckstead (2015) worry about
        • But I’m not sure how significant that risk pathway is
    • Perhaps this should also push my estimate of the existential risk posed by biotechnology/bioweapons slightly downwards?
      • This would be based on the premises that (a) this historical fact implies there’ll be less anti-personnel bioweapons activity than I’d have thought, and (b) anti-personnel bioweapons activity contributes more to existential risk than anti-animal or anti-plant bioweapons activity does
      • But I’m not sure if either of those premises hold
    • I think this should also update me towards placing at least a bit more credence on ALLFED’s / David Denkenberger’s concern about agricultural shortfalls caused by things like a possible “super weed, super crop pathogen, super bacterium, or super crop pest” (source)
      • And that should in turn slightly update me towards placing more credence on other claims of theirs which I haven’t evaluated
  4. The author presents some pathogens as quite concerning and says they are placed in categories for relatively high concern by some relevant authorities, despite those pathogens seeming to me to be extremely unlikely to cause an existential catastrophe, and quite unlikely even to cause a global catastrophe
    • This doesn’t really affect my estimate of the existential risk posed by biotechnology/bioweapons, because:
      • Other pathogens the author mentions do seem to pose more risk from a longtermist perspective
      • This only relates to existing pathogens, not possible future pathogens
      • I already believed that posing an existential risk is a high bar that most pathogens won’t meet
    • Also, of course, something can be bad without meeting the definition of a global catastrophe!
    • But this point does suggest to me that much of the general vibe of concern that comes from some experts on biorisk might be about much smaller scale (though still bad) disasters than what longtermists are most concerned about
  5. This book somewhat increased my credence in the view that international law (e.g., the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)) can be quite effective for tackling issues like biorisk (rather than e.g. it just almost never being taken seriously), and that it is very important for reducing biorisk
  6. During the George W. Bush administration (and the Clinton administration, to a lesser extent), US reluctance or opposition to certain improvements to the BTWC seems to have been the largest or one of the largest obstacles to those improvements happening
    • (See e.g. the Wikipedia article’s section on the failed negotiation of a verification protocol.)
    • This somewhat increased my credence that the US often fails to take a leadership role in, or actively undermines, diplomatic or international law efforts that could reduce existential or global catastrophic risks
      • I already had substantial credence in that from an international relations university unit and some of my nuclear weapons research
    • But then at other times and in other ways, the US had a very positive role
    • Altogether, this updates me towards higher credence that influencing relevant US government actions could be highly valuable
      • Since we can’t just count on the best actions being taken by default, but nor does it seem inevitable that bad actions will always be taken

My thanks to Darius Meissner for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post (including the parts I've now split out into comments).

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Final thoughts on whether you should read this book

  • I found the book useful
    • The parts I found most useful were (a) the early chapters on the history of biowarfare and bioterrorism and (b) the later chapters on attempts to use international law to reduce risks from bioterror and biowarfare
  • I found parts of the book hard to pay attention to and remember information from
    • In particular, the middle chapters on various types and examples of pathogens
      • But this might just be a “me problem”. Ever since high school, I’ve continually noticed that I seem to have a harder time paying attention to and remembering information about biology than information from other disciplines. (I don’t understand what that would be the case, and I’m not certain it’s actually true, but it has definitely seemed true.)
  • I’m not sure how useful this book would be to someone who already knows a lot about bioterror, biowarfare, and/or chemical weapons
  • I’m not sure how useful this book would be to someone who doesn’t have much interest in the topics of bioterror, biowarfare, and/or chemical weapons
    • But I’m inclined to think most longtermists should read consume at least one book’s worth of content from experts on those topics
    • And I think the book could be somewhat useful for understanding WMDs, international relations, and international law more generally
  • There might be better books on the topic
    • In particular, it’s possible a more recent book would be better?

Very helpful, thanks. Separately, I'd note that several of the biosecurity researchers most actively getting involved with the GCR community (e.g. Piers Millett at FHI and Catherine Rhodes at CSER) did PhD/postdoc work with Malcolm. (I've also found him a lovely and approachable person, generous with guidance and feedback - we've had him at several workshops).

A somewhat related thought I had while reading this post:  Several of the nuclear-weapon states (including the US for all I remember) retain the right to retaliate with nuclear weapons against an attack with bioweapons, chemical weapons, and even cyber weapons. On the one hand, this might make the overall situation more stable because hostile actors (at least states, probably not so much terrorist groups) are deterred from using these other weapons types. On the other hand, it may be destabilising since many more actors (including non-state ones) may trigger a nuclear conflict.

Interesting point. Note that a requirement for retaliation is knowledge of the actor to retaliate against. This is called “attribution” and is a historically hard problem for bioweapons which is maybe getting easier with modern ML (COI- I an a coauthor: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-19149-2)

My Anki cards

Note that:

  • It’s possible that some of these cards include mistakes, or will be confusing or misleading out of context.
  • I haven’t fact-checked Dando on any of these points.
  • Some of these cards are just my own interpretations - rather than definitely 100% parroting what the book is saying
  • The indented parts are the questions, the answers are in "spoiler blocks" (hover over them to reveal the text), and the parts in square brackets are my notes-to-self.

Dando says ___ used biological weapons in WW1, but seemingly only against ___.

the Germans and perhaps the French;

draft animals (e.g. horses), not humans

[This was part of sabotage operations, seemingly only/especially in the US, Romania, Norway, and Argentina. The US and Romania were neutral at the time; not sure whether Norway and Argentina were.]

Dando says the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits ___, but not ___, of chemical and biological weapons, and that many of the parties to the Protocol entered reservations to their agreement to make it clear that ___.

Use;

Development and stockpiling;

Although they would not use such weapons first, they were prepared to use them in retaliation if such weapons were used first against them

[And a number of offensive bio weapons programs were undertaken by major states in the interwar period. Only later in the 20th century were further arms control restrictions placed on chem and bio weapons.]

Japan's offensive biological warfare program was unique in that ___. The program probably caused ___.

It used human experimentation to test biological agents;

The deaths of thousands of Chinese people

[This program ran from 1931-1945]

Dando mentions 6 countries as having had "vigorous" offensive biological weapons programs during WW2:

Japan, The Soviet Union, France, the UK, the US, Canada

[He doesn't explicitly say these were the only countries with such programs, but does seem to imply that, or at least that no other countries had similarly large programs

He notes that Germany didn't have such a program.

France's program was interrupted by the German invasion in 1940, but was resumed after WW2.]

Dando suggests that the main or most thoroughly prepared type of British WW2 biological warfare weapon/plan was...

To drop millions of cattle cakes infected with anthrax spores onto German fields, to wipe out cattle and thus deal an economic blow to Germany's overstretched agricultural system

[The British did make 5 million of these cakes.]

Dando says that there are 7 countries which definitely had offensive biological weapons programs in the second half of the 20th century:

The US, the UK, the Soviet Union, Canada, France, South Africa, Iraq

[He also says there've been numerous accusations that other countries had such programs as well, but that there isn't definite information about them.]

Dando says that 3 countries continued to have offensive biological weapons after becoming the depository for, ratifying, and/or signing the BTWC:

Soviet Union, South Africa, and Iraq

[This was then illegal under international law. Prior to the BTWC, having such a program wasn't illegal - only the use of bioweapons was.

I think the other 4 states that had had such programs between WW2 and 1972 stopped at that point or before then.]

During WW2, the US offensive biological weapons program was developing anti-___, anti-___, and anti-___ weapons.

personnel; animal; plant

[And the US was considering using anti-plant weapons against Japanese rice production.]

What major change in high-level US policy regarding chemical and biological weapons does Dando suggest occurred around 1956?

What does he suggest this was partly a reaction to?

Changing from a retaliation-only policy for BW and CW to a policy stating that the US would be prepared to use BW or CW in a general war for the purposes of enhancing military effectiveness [and the decision would be reserved for the president];

Soviet statements in 1956 that chemical and biological weapons would be used in future wars for the purposes of mass destruction

[Dando notes that the retaliation-only policy was in line with the US's signature of the 1925 Geneva protocol, but also that the US didn't actually ratify the Geneva protocol till 1975; until then it was only a signatory.]

Dando says an army report says the origin of the US's shift (under Nixon) to renouncing biological and chemical weapons dates from...

Criticism of US application of chemical herbicides and riot control agent(s) in Vietnam starting in the 1960s

[I think this means criticism/opposition by the public.]

The UK's work on an offensive biological weapons capability had been abandoned by...

1957

[According to a report cited by Dando.

Though Dando later indicates the UK restarted some of this work in 1961, I think particularly/only to find a nonlethal incapacitating chemical weapon.]

Dando says that, at the end of WW2, the UK viewed biological weapons as...

On a par with nuclear weapons

["Only when the UK obtained its own nuclear systems did interest in biological weapons decline.”

I don't know precisely what Dando means by this.]

South Africa had an offensive biological weapons program during...

The later stages of the Apartheid regime

[But it was terminated before the regime change.]

What was the scale of South Africa's offensive biological weapons program? What does its main purpose seem to have been?

Relatively small (e.g. smaller than Iraq's program)

Finding means of assassinating the Apartheid regime's enemies

[Elsewhere, Dando suggests that original motivations for the program - or perhaps for some chemical weapons work? - also included the Angola war and a desire to find crowd control agents.]

What has Iraq stated about authority (as of ~1991) to launch its chemical and biological weapons?

Authority was pre-delegated to regional commanders if Baghdad was hit with nuclear weapons

[UNSCOM has noted that that doesn't exclude other forms of use, and doesn't constitute a proof of a retaliation-only policy.]

The approach to chemical weapons that Iraq pursued was ___, in contrast to a Western approach of ___.

Production and rapid use;

Production and stockpiling

[I'm guessing that this means that Iraq pursued the ability to produce chemical weapons shortly before they were needed, rather than having a pre-made, long-lasting stockpile of more stable versions.

Dando says a similar approach could've been taken towards biological weapons.]

Dando says that the main lesson from the Iraqi biological weapons program is that...

A medium-sized country without great scientific and technical resources was, within a few years, able to reach the stage of weaponising a range of deadly biological agents

What kind of vaccine does Dando say South Africa's biological weapons program tried to find? What does someone who had knowledge of the program say the vaccine might've been used for, if it had been found?

An anti-fertility vaccine;

Administering to black women without their knowledge

Dando lists 6 different types of biological agents that could be used for biological weapons:

Bacteria; Viruses; Toxins; Bioregulators; Protozoa; Fungi

[I'm not sure whether this was meant to be exhaustive, nor whether I'm right to say these are "different types of biological agents".

There's also a chance I forgot one of the types he mentioned.]

Dando says that vaccination during a plague epidemic would not be of much help, because...

Immunity takes a month to build up

[Note that I haven't fact-checked this, and that, for all I know, the situation may be different with other pathogens or newer vaccines.]

In the mid twentieth century, ___ tried to use plague-infected fleas to cause an outbreak among ___.

Japan; the Chinese

Dando notes at least 3 factors that could make the option of biowarfare or bioterrorism against animal agriculture attractive:

1. The animals are densely packed in confined areas

2. The animals reared are often from very limited genetic stock (so that a large percentage of them could succumb to a single strain of a pathogen)

3. Many/all pathogens that would be used don't infect humans (reducing risks to the people involved in producing and using the pathogens)

[Dando implies that that third point is more relevant to bioterrorism than biowarfare, but doesn't say why. I assume it's because terrorists will tend to have fewer skills and resources than military programs, making them more vulnerable to accidents.]

What proportion of state-level offensive biological weapons programs (of which we have knowledge) "carefully investigated anti-plant attacks"?

Nearly all

In the 1990s, the US OTA concluded that the cheapest overt production route for 1 nuclear bomb per year, with no international controls, would cost __.

They also concluded that a chemical weapons arsenal for substantial military capability would cost __.

They concluded that a large biological weapons arsenal may cost __.

~$200 million;

$10s of millions;

Less than $10 million

[I'm unsure precisely what this meant.

I assume the OTA thought a covert route for nuclear weapons, with international controls, would be more expensive than the overt route with no international controls.]

Efforts in the 1990s to strengthen the BWC through agreement of a verification protocol eventually failed in 2001 due to the opposition from which country?

The United States

The BTWC was opened for signature in __, and entered into force in __.

1972; 1975

Dando highlights two key deficiencies of the BTWC (at least as of it entering into force in 1975):

1. There was a lack of verification measures

2. No organisation had been put in place to take care of the convention, of its effective implementation, and of its development between review conferences

[Dando notes that, in contrast to 2, there was a large organisation associated with the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Wikipedia suggests that a (very small) Implementation Support Unit for the BTWC was finally created in 2006.]

Dando highlights a US-based stakeholder as being vocally opposed to the ideas that were proposed for verifying compliance with the BTWC:

The huge US pharmaceutical industry and its linked trade associations

[I think Dando might've been talking about opposition to inspections in particular

Dando implies that this contributed to US executive branch being lukewarm on or sort-of opposed to these verification ideas.]