TL;DR We are intending to run a feasibility study to establish requirements and a theory of change for novel ‘Super PPE’. Assuming this concludes positively we will develop Super PPE to reduce GCBR risk.

This post builds on the 11th Jan post on concrete biosecurity projects by ASB, ECA, and the ‘list of lists’ by TA, specifically with regard to ‘Super PPE’. Thank you to the authors of these posts and all the others that have helped with our research so far, particularly Vivian Belenky and their work with the NextGen PPE group, Cass Springer and his knowledge of the area, and Caleb Parikh for advice and for reviewing this post.

 

What is the context?

Global Catastrophic Biological Risks (GCBRs) present a known and well documented threat - both in an existential form, and as s-risks from lesser but still greatly damaging pandemics or other biological events [1].

Many data, infrastructure, logistical, and biomedically based methods are in development to reduce catastrophic biorisk [2] [3] [4] [5]. However, there is a concerning lack of development of novel and next generation hardware and physical equipment in the same space.

One particular item in this area is Biohazard Personal Protective Equipment. In any potentially catastrophic biological event that breaches initial containment efforts, we have extremely high confidence that widespread use of high protection level PPE, likely akin to positive pressure BSL4 suits, would be required for recovery and continuation of civilisation (we don’t have a source for this but literature in the area discusses it as if given).

Unfortunately, existing PPE of an appropriate protection level is not practical for widespread use during a catastrophic event. A quick list of some major issues with suits such as BSL4 suits and L5 Tychem suits:

The development of ‘Super PPE’ was flagged earlier this year in the EA forums as a concrete biosecurity project. This is echoed by other organisations, such as the Apollo program for biodefence, which has identified next-generation PPE as a technology priority for the next decade.

This is a sorely overdue development that could see a huge leap in technology/equipment quality, simply due to the fact that designs haven’t significantly changed since 1979.

We are aware of some efforts that have been made to improve on full body biohazard PPE, particularly relating to and following the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak. Whilst these improvements are a brilliant start, there is still a long way to go until we reach global-catastrophe-ready suits.

 

What do we propose?

In order to make substantial progress on Super PPE, the authors are preparing to apply for funding to perform an initial feasibility study into the design and development of next generation PPE for biorisks. Should the study return favourably (we have high confidence that it will), it will be followed by further stages to prove the concept, create prototypes, and hopefully scale to a final product within 2-5 years. We are intending to do this primarily through an engineering consultancy that we run, which enables access to engineers across several engineering disciplines (including Mechanical, Chemical, Bio, and Materials) and allows us to quickly scale product development work.

 

Why do a feasibility study?

Following networking within the EA-sphere and preliminary research, our current understanding of the field is that some scoping of the wider problem has been undertaken by some EAs, and some early stage design/prototyping on a PAPR concept has been completed by Cass Springer. In order to gather momentum and make concrete progress on GCBR reduction, we want to set aside a block of our time to:

  • Establish the real issues with existing PPE through:
    • User research, case studies
    • Detailed critical analysis of existing products
  • Work out how PPE can actually be used to reduce GCBRs
    • With regard to engineering/technological requirements
    • From a mechanistic perspective (organisation funding, distribution, how is PPE expected to be used in a GCBR event etc.)
    • How GCBR scenarios may differ to normal use cases for PPE
  • Plan next steps in order to make clear gains in the area and better prepare the world for biological risks.

 

What we could use help with:

Biorisk expertise & advice to keep expanding our knowledge of the area, particularly regarding theoretical GCBR events, what they might look like, how civilization might adapt, how PPE might be used, etc.

Criticism of the premise - is this a worthwhile use of our time?

General thoughts, collaboration, and advice from teams and individuals that have worked on PPE in the past

Signposting to funding - we are currently intending to apply to the LTFF to fund the feasibility study. We plan to initially fund with grants, ideally until second generation prototypes, at which stage we would likely aim to secure VC funding (unless grant funding of an appropriate scale could be secured).

 

Some extra positives for the project:

PPE for biorisks represents an opportunity for threat agnostic biorisk reduction. The physical barriers could not be easily overcome by the re-engineering or evolving of a hazard.

A physical suit which you put around yourself is about as tangible as you can get with regard to threat protection. This would likely make preparatory and reactive uptake & use much more widespread than some of the more conceptual or high level alternatives.

This is very speculative, but the threat agnosticism may have potential to be powerful enough to provide protection from any airborne particulate based threat, possibly providing minor risk reduction against some low x-risk threats such as nuclear war or supervolcanic eruptions.

 

Extra notes & Appendices:

As we are engineers, we couldn’t help but start speculating and designing as our research progressed. See some of our speculative thoughts and drawings on Super PPE here :)

Due to the physical nature of the project, we expect this work to be less infohazardous than other work in this space, but we are new to the area and would appreciate thoughts on how our project may end up being net negative in the comments or via email if sensitive (andy.graham@amododesign.com , tom.milton@amododesign.com)

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5 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:27 PM

Sounds like valuable work - good luck! I spotted this recent news story that might be relevant. Any thoughts?

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-62797775

Scientists have developed a virus-killing plastic that could make it harder for bugs, including Covid, to spread in hospitals and care homes.

The team at Queen's University Belfast say their plastic film is cheap and could be fashioned into protective gear such as aprons.

It works by reacting with light to release chemicals that break the virus....

....The material was tested in the laboratory against four types of virus - two influenzas, the Covid virus and a picornavirus, which has the traits that make a virus highly stable outside the body.

In controlled laboratory conditions, about one million virus particles were placed on the self-sterilising plastic. This is far beyond the amount of virus that would be needed to start an infection.

"It goes from one million viruses down to nothing, and we can see an effect in less than one hour and maximum death in two hours," said Dr Connor Bamford, from the school of medicine at Queen's.

Thanks Matt, an initial skim of the paper shows some very interesting results, so we'll certainly look into it!

As we are engineers, we couldn’t help but start speculating and designing as our research progressed. See some of our speculative thoughts and drawings on Super PPE here :)

Very interesting work, congrats! How does this design compare to existing alternatives in terms of cost, ease of manufacturing, and comfort?

These are very early stage concepts to help us brainstorm more than anything – real designs will come about over a much longer development process, but will be particularly informed by the feasibility study we’re hoping to undertake. Cost, ease of manufacture and comfort are all key areas for us!

Sounds great. As someone with no familiarity (but a lot of interest) in the field, I'd appreciate it if you included comparisons with the state of the art and existing alternatives in your analysis.