A Biosecurity and Biorisk Reading+ List

by tessa16 min read14th Mar 20218 comments

77

Collections and resourcesBooksBiosecurityExistential risk
Frontpage

Here are some readings (+courses, videos, and podcasts) to help you get oriented in biosecurity and biorisk reduction.

My favourite items are bolded. Resources I have not directly vetted, but which have been recommended strongly by others, are marked with a *.

This list is a bit biased towards US researchers and organizations, in part because many of the readings were done in 2018-2019 with the East Bay Biosecurity Group, which is based in Berkeley, California. If you think I’ve missed something particularly valuable, please send it along!

Last Updated: March 16, 2021


Meta

If you’re just starting to learn about biosecurity, I especially recommend the 80,000 Hours problem profile, the Next Generation Biosecurity course, and the reports I've listed under "Global Catastrophic Biological Risks" below: Technologies to Address GBCRs for a broad range of technical opportunities, The Apollo Program for technology to fund now to prevent the next pandemic, and Preventing GCBRs for several exciting policy opportunities.

After that, well, I’m biased towards suggesting you start a reading group and work through whichever resources catch your interest, since that worked well for me. If you're feeling unsure what to read next from this rather long list, please feel free to ask for suggestions in the comments!

I am not the first effective altruist type to put a biosecurity reading list on the internet. Here are some others lists I know of, with some notes about where they differ from this one:

  • If you just want introductory materials, the EA Resource Hub’s Biorisk Reading List should serve you well; this list contains the same readings and podcasts, as well as more in-depth ones.
  • I have included every resource highly recommended by Gregory Lewis’s “ultra-rough” Global Catastrophic Biological Risks Reading List, even if I haven’t read it, and our lists naturally had some overlap. That document also includes a good quick writeup of prerequisite basic science knowledge you need to get oriented in biorisk reduction.
  • The Future of Life Institute’s 2018 post on the Benefits and Risks of Biotechnology includes a forest of links, including videos and popular press articles that focus on the benefits of biotechnology (something outside the scope of this syllabus) and a long list of organizations involved in the field.
  • Jamie Withorne maintains a Learn WMDs Spreadsheet. It’s focused on nuclear risks, but contains a wide variety of resources; a glossary and reading list, but also listservs / grad programs / networks, some related to bioweapons.

A Note on COVID-19

Many of these resources are about pandemics, but few are specific to COVID-19. This is because I wrote the first draft of this post in February 2021; the pandemic is still ongoing, and I am following it largely as news, not science. Most of my favourite readings on COVID-19 have been journalistic; things like Ed Yong on How The Pandemic Will End, Tomas Pueyo's influential Medium posts, Derek Lowe on vaccine manufacturing, and Zeynep Tufecki on epistemic humility. That said, with a few notable exceptions (e.g. travel bans are useful despite going against the International Health Regulations, vaccines were produced way faster than I expected) I feel like the generalist biosecurity reading I did in back in 2018 and 2019 ended up being pretty relevant to this unfolding pandemic.


Online Courses

  • Next Generation Biosecurity: Responding to 21st Century Biorisks (Useful broad six-week introduction to biosecurity issues, including lots of case studies. Put together by experts at the University of Bath, including the folks behind biosecu.re.)
  • Act Like A Pro! (Set of three interactive biosecurity case studies set in Argentina, Uganda, and the UK. Developed as part of the 2018 Next Generation for Biosecurity competition, which is a project of NTI | bio and the Next Generation GHS Network.)
  • Malice Analysis (Half-day workshop put on by the Engineering Biology Research Consortium to help life sciences graduate students and biotechnology professionals assess risks in their own work. Sign up for the EBRC mailing list to get informed next time they’re running.)

Readings

These are arranged to be helpful to someone organising a biosecurity reading group. For monthly meetings, I would recommend doing a set of short readings on a topic, a single report, or a section of a book. At a weekly cadence, I would recommend discussing a single paper or a few chapters of a longer report. My opinions on how to run high-energy reading groups can be found in this EA forum post.

Papers and other short readings

Cause Reports from Effective Altruist Organizations

Global Catastrophic Biological Risks

(These are all drawn from the 2017 special issue of Health Security on GCBRs.)

Bioweapons

Vaccine Development

Risks from Gain-of-Function Research

Governance and Policy

Information Hazards and Publication Norms

Dual-Use Case Study: de novo horsepox synthesis

This case study was unfolding while the East Bay Biosecurity reading group was meeting; it’s probably not as important as the 2011 dual-use controversy around H5N1 gain-of-function experiments, but I don’t have a reading list handy for those.

Skeptical Takes on Biorisks

Sequence Screening and Attribution

Advances in Bioengineering

Reports

These all have the sort of page count that justifies an executive summary. A reading group may want to cover just the executive summary and a few sections of particular interest.

Global Catastrophic Biological Risks

Biodefense and Bioweapons

Dual-Use and Emerging Technology

Other

Books

I admit I have not read most of these; many are on my to-read-soon list, okay?

Talks, Podcasts, and Videos

80,000 Hours Podcast

Full transcript available for all of these.

Future of Life Institute Podcast

Full transcript available for all of these.

Pandemic Tabletop Exercises

I recommend watching these at 1.5x speed; they’re not as well-organized as a talk or podcast, but useful for getting a gestalt sense of what experts actually believe about pandemic response.

  • Event 201, October 18, 2019. (Explored incentives for producing vaccine stockpiles, economic effects of trade and travel restrictions, potential ramifications of a pandemic for the global financial system, and mis- and dis-information. Participants included representatives from UPS, Johnson & Johnson, Gates Foundation, NBCUniversal, and others.)
  • Clade X, May 15, 2018. (Explored decisions available to US national security personnel in the event of an emerging engineered pandemic. Participants included a former senator, the president of AAAS, a former CDC director, and others.)

Talks from Effective Altruism Global

Full transcript available for all of these. Inclusive of the biosecurity tag on the EA Global website.

Other Talks / Podcasts


Thanks to Aaron Gertler for nudging me to write about reading groups and to Brian Wang and Megan Crawford for co-organizing East Bay Biosecurity's reading groups in 2018 and 2019.

77

8 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:48 AM
New Comment

Thank you for this! We've been considering starting up some kind of "intro to biosecurity" reading group at our local EA group and these are really excellent resources for us, and is likely to save us many hours of work trawlling through the literature. 

Oh, that's great to hear! That's very much the use case I was hoping this list might help with. As I said in the meta section, if you're feeling unsure what to read next from this rather long list, please feel free to ask for suggestions in the comments!

Thanks a lot for this list!

This is a bit of a tangent, but one implicit assumption I find interesting in your list and when other EA biosecurity-focused people talk about existential biosecurity (eg, this talk by Kevin Esvelt ) is that there's relatively little focus on what I consider "classical epidemiology."  

This seems in contrast to the implicit beliefs of both a) serious EAs who haven't thought as much about biosecurity (weak evidence here: the problem/speaker selection 80000 hours podcasts) and b) public health people who are less aware of EA (weak evidence here: undergrad or grad students in public health who I sometimes talk to or are in an advisory position for). 

Putting numbers to this vague intuition, I would guess that your reading list here would suggest an optimal  biosecurity-focused portfolio will have a focus of ~5-20% in classical epidemiology, whereas many EA students would think the weighting of epidemiology should be closer to ~30-60%. 

I'm interested in whether you agree with my distinction here and consider it a fair characterization? If so, do you think it's worthwhile to have a writeup explaining why (or why not!) many EA-aligned students overweight epidemiology in their portfolio of considerations for important ways to reduce existential biorisk? 

EDIT: Relevant Twitter poll.

Interesting observation! To be honest, I hadn't thought much about this list from the perspective of it being a portfolio of (types of) expertise, rather than a list of interesting + useful topics.

For what it's worth, epidemiology is one of four topics (along with cell biology, microbiology, and immunology) included under recommended Technical knowledge/Basic science in Gregory Lewis’s “ultra-rough” Global Catastrophic Biological Risks Reading List:

Epidemiology: A sketch of infectious disease epidemiology: surveillance and outbreak detection, some basic understanding of infectious disease dynamics (e.g. R0, attack rate, compartment models).

I do feel that 60% classical epidemiology (if I'm understanding your distinction right; your link gave the definition as "the study of the determinants and distribution of disease in populations") would be too high a weighting in a portfolio aimed at reducing global catastrophic biorisks. I think my reasoning there is based on a belief that GCBRs are most likely to arise from deliberate misuse of biology, and preventing that deliberate misuse is higher priority than developing better responses to natural pandemics. I don't feel terribly confident in this; my response here is pretty off-the-cuff, and I'll try to give this topic more thought.

I asked an epidemiologist for some paper recommendations and got the following (which I haven't yet read):

I have also had my mind blown a little bit by Virulence evolution and the trade‐off hypothesis: history, current state of affairs and the future. Learning more about viral evolution and evolutionary epidemiology has been fun, but/and I remain uncertain how helpful this is in thinking about high-potential-consequence biorisks.

Thanks for making this list, Tessa – so much that I have yet to read! And thanks for including our article :)

I thought I might suggest a few other readings on vaccine development:

Also, I think you omitted a super important 80k podcast: Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins on 8 years of combating WMD terrorism.

Finally, since you already included a ton of readings from fellow EA's, I thought I'd also suggest Questioning Estimates of Natural Pandemic Risk (2018), David  Manheim.

Thanks again for making this!

Excellent― one thing I was hoping to get from posting this was links to resources I hadn't encountered yet, so I really appreciate this.

Thanks Tessa!  You're a lifesaver! 

I found an interesting course I would like to recommend. It's the EU Non-proliferation and Disarmament eLearning course. Learning Unit 3 is on biological weapons. You can access it here :

https://nonproliferation-elearning.eu/learningunits/biological-weapons/