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This post contains the summary and introduction of our new report Global Catastrophic Biological Risks. Like our recent work on nuclear issues, it is intended to serve as a guide for philanthropists interested in working on this issue.

You can find the full report as a PDF here.[1] That version also includes acknowledgments and two external reviews of the report, by Joshua Monrad and Andrew Snyder-Beattie. Many thanks to them and everyone else who helped with their insights and edits for this report (see the acknowledgements section in the full version).

Please consider skimming the full report before leaving comments here.


This report provides an overview of the threat of global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs) and how philanthropists can help to mitigate this threat. Using semi-structured interviews and analysis of available data on funding and pandemic preparedness, the report argues that:

  1. The expected cost of a biological catastrophe is immense. High-consequence biological events like engineered pandemics are among the biggest threats to human life and modern civilization this century.
  2. Biological risks could pose an existential threat to humanity, but the case for pandemic preparedness and prevention remains strong even without placing special value on existential risks.[2] 
  3. The threat landscape is rapidly changing. New advances in the life sciences and enabling technologies — which could have immense benefits for humanity — may increase the risk by both providing new capabilities and enabling the use of these capabilities by reckless and malicious actors.
  4. These changes also increase uncertainty about the origin and characteristics of future biological threats.
  5. Societal spending remains misallocated even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although governments and traditional philanthropists spend billions on public health and health security, they disproportionately neglect the most high-consequence threats.

These basic facts point towards a general problem structure that is familiar from Founders Pledge’s work on climate change and nuclear war: the worst possible biological catastrophes will be disproportionately worse than other pandemics, yet they are simultaneously disproportionately neglected.

Fortunately, we know what to do; with an understanding of basic facts about the problem and strategic reasoning about the uncertainties of future threats, philanthropists can fund clear and tractable interventions. Stated succinctly, philanthropists ought to hedge against the worst possible scenarios where traditional risk-mitigation has failed by following quasi-quantitative heuristics for effectiveness, or “impact multipliers.”[3] Such heuristics can guide philanthropists in identifying the funding opportunities that are likely to have the highest impact on the margins. They include:

  • Focus on worst-case scenarios. Disease outbreaks (like terrorist events) follow very heavy-tailed distributions, where the worst pandemics outweigh many smaller pandemics combined. Such events are both disproportionately important and unduly neglected.
  • In practice, this often means prioritizing engineered threats. Nature is not the worst bioterrorist.
  • Within anthropogenic events, generally pursue pathogen- and threat-agnostic approaches. Rather than trying to guess where the next pandemic will come from, philanthropists ought to support approaches that are robust to a variety of scenarios.
  • Fund interventions that are robust to the entire spectrum of risk, including natural pandemics, and up to and including extinction-level engineered pandemics.
  • In practice, this often means prioritizing prevention over prioritizing response.
  • Leverage existing societal resources using advocacy-based interventions (largely for government, but also for other large funders), with a few notable exceptions where government interests appear unlikely to align.
  • All else equal, prioritize interventions with near-term positive externalities that can garner sustained and broad political support.
  • Prioritize low-dual use potential and high offense-defense distinguishability and avoid information hazards when selecting funding opportunities to avoid fuelling dangerous security dilemmas and doing more harm than good.

A final section discusses possible funding opportunities that leverage these heuristics. Promising funding opportunities include:

  • Field building and policy advocacy on issues relevant for worst-case GCBR scenarios.
  • Policy advocacy may include advocacy specifically designed to constrain the access and capabilities of malevolent actors or to disincentivize the pursuit of biological weapons programs.
  • Safeguards against proliferation and misuse of key technologies and information, especially AI misuse and DNA synthesis screening.
  • Transmission-blocking interventions, including sterilizing technology, work on germicidal lights for indoor biological air quality, mechanisms to quickly decontaminate PPE, and more.
  • Pandemic-proof personal protective equipment (P4E).[4]
  • Pathogen-agnostic early warning, including metagenomic sequencing.
  • Platform technologies for medical countermeasures to rapidly pivot production and distribution for novel threats.[5]

The report also discusses various dilemmas that philanthropists face when making funding decisions, and provides a grantmaker dilemma checklist to help screen for information hazards and security dilemmas. Philanthropists can play an important role in mitigating catastrophic biological risks, and this guide is designed to help guide the grantmaking strategy of impact-minded philanthropists.

A Note on Hazardous Information

Some discussions of biological risks present information hazards that could increase the risks of a catastrophe merely by spreading information (e.g. the biological details of especially dangerous viruses) that could enable malevolent actors to cause great harm, as discussed below. To make a responsible contribution to the literature on biological risks, this report therefore attempts to follow best practices surrounding the disclosure of vulnerabilities and capabilities, including by:


  • Avoiding discussion of specific biological threats or “blueprints” for harm
  • Discussing the features of risky pathogens only in abstract and general terms
  • Not disclosing or drawing attention to specific biodefense vulnerabilities
  • Using well-known historical examples whenever possible
  • Asking pre-publication reviewers to pay special attention to potentially hazardous information


Fortunately, because threat-agnostic interventions also happen to be high-impact interventions, responsible conduct around dangerous information does not hinder the discussion of effective philanthropy. Readers concerned about information contained in this report are encouraged to contact the author at christian@founderspledge.com.


Humanity is underprepared for future pandemics. As explained in the following sections, novel biological threats — especially those caused by engineered pathogens — could kill hundreds of millions or even billions of people and precipitate the collapse of modern civilization. Existing resources generally do not prioritize catastrophic scenarios.[6] Several policymakers who have worked on pandemic preparedness and response described their experiences in interviews for this report; all agreed that society is not ready for the next pandemic, natural or engineered.

Worse, the COVID-19 pandemic was not the wake-up call it could have been. In an interview for this report, Jason Matheny, the CEO of the RAND Corporation, who previously led White House policy on technology and national security at the National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy and has extensive expertise on catastrophic biological risks, explained that  “policymakers are suffering from pandemic fatigue [...] They are just sick and tired of hearing about the pandemic and having to pay for it.”[7] Similarly, Tom Inglesby, the Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, explained in an interview for this report, “[In government] there's COVID fatigue, let alone interest in taking on things that are bigger than COVID.”[8] This fatigue is not limited to policymakers but extends to many traditional philanthropic funders, as explained below (see Societal Spending and Neglectedness). The recent collapse of large philanthropic entities linked to FTX and the withdrawal of other funders has only worsened this situation by removing millions of dollars from biosecurity and pandemic–preparedness philanthropy.

This matters because new advances in the life sciences and in related enabling technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) are creating a rapidly-shifting threat landscape. If society does not take action to regulate access to these technologies — or to promote differential technological development — their powerful capabilities may not only provide benefits to humanity, but may also proliferate to malevolent actors who seek to weaponize synthetic biology.[9] History shows that state bioweapons programs, non-state bioterrorism, and laboratory leaks are not uncommon.[10] As more and more actors gain access to the necessary tools and training in genetic engineering, the risk of deliberate and accidental release of such pathogens increases, and with it, the risk of a global catastrophe, civilizational collapse, and even human extinction.

The devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic could have catalyzed a movement towards better pandemic preparedness. Instead, societies remain asleep at the wheel, careening towards a new age of democratized synthetic biology with few guardrails. The specifics of these problems are described in detail below, but one senior policymaker who used to work on biological risks in the U.S. government summarized it bluntly in an anonymized interview for this report: “I just came away from that [i.e. government service on biosecurity] thinking, we're just completely fucked.”[11]

This report is intended as a detailed roadmap for philanthropists who want to do something about these global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs).[12] We hope that this guide will help catalyze more funding on GCBRs, because — as the following sections explain — they are:

  • Important — Pandemics can kill millions of people, and engineered pathogens are among the few credible extinction risks to modern civilization.
  • Neglected — Although governments spend billions on health security, we estimate that less than 2% of this money is relevant to the prevention of catastrophic or potential extinction-level biological events.
  • Tractable — Unlike other important and neglected risks, like risks from advanced artificial intelligence, we have a firm grasp of the problem, and can identify many actionable funding opportunities that can mitigate the risk.

Society needs philanthropists to take up this issue, because no one else has. As one former senior U.S. policymaker interviewed for this project put it, “without philanthropists funding work in this area, it's not going to get funded.”[13] 

Full Report (PDF)

About Founders Pledge

Founders Pledge is a global nonprofit empowering entrepreneurs to do the most good possible with their charitable giving. We equip members with everything needed to maximize their impact, from evidence-led research and advice on the world’s most pressing problems, to comprehensive infrastructure for global grant-making, alongside opportunities to learn and connect. To date, they have pledged over $10 billion to charity and donated more than $950 million. We’re grateful to be funded by our members and other generous donors. founderspledge.com 

If you are interested in supporting work in this area, consider donating to the Global Catastrophic Risks Fund


  1. ^

    I tried posting the full report here, but it kept crashing.

  2. ^

     Some sections of this report discuss questions of extinction and civilizational collapse. To the extent that readers subscribe to worldviews that place high moral value on the long-term future of humanity, biological risk mitigation therefore becomes especially important, and plausibly one of the most important causes that philanthropists can focus on. Nonetheless, as argued throughout the report, the super-linear structure of the risk means that worst-case pandemics remain important from many ethical perspectives.

  3. ^

     For a discussion of the concept of impact multipliers, see Guiding Principles for Effective Philanthropy, in the full report.

  4. ^

     This term is borrowed from the work of Dr. Kevin Esvelt. See also recent work by Gryphon Scientific on this topic.

  5. ^

     As discussed below, large uncertainties surround the robustness of medical countermeasures to worst-case threat scenarios,

  6. ^

     “Even the best-prepared nations lack sufficient protective equipment for most key personnel, and vaccines and other medical countermeasures could not plausibly be manufactured and distributed in any time frame shorter than months, if they could be developed at all.” (Kevin M Esvelt, “Delay, Detect, Defend: Preparing for a Future in Which Thousands Can Release New Pandemics,” Geneva Papers (Geneva Centre for Security Policy, 2022), 13, https://dam.gcsp.ch/files/doc/gcsp-geneva-paper-29-22?_gl=1*xm44p1*_ga*ODQxMDI0NjY4LjE2ODM2NTg5MTg.*_ga_Z66DSTVXTJ*MTY4MzczNTIzNi4yLjAuMTY4MzczNTIzNi4wLjAuMA..#page=49&zoom=100,0,0.)

  7. ^

     Interview with Dr. Jason Matheny, 30 May 2023.

  8. ^

     Interview with Dr. Tom Inglesby, 8 June 2023.

  9. ^

     See The Growing Risk of Biological Catastrophe, below. Thanks to Jake Swett for emphasizing the importance of differential technological development.

  10. ^
  11. ^

     Anonymized interview.

  12. ^

     We adopt the following definition of GCBRs proposed by scholars from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security: “Those events in which biological agents—whether naturally emerging or reemerging, deliberately created and released, or laboratory engineered and escaped—could lead to sudden, extraordinary, widespread disaster beyond the collective capability of national and international governments and the private sector to control. If unchecked, GCBRs would lead to great suffering, loss of life, and sustained damage to national governments, international relationships, economies, societal stability, or global security.” Monica Schoch-Spana et al., “Global Catastrophic Biological Risks: Toward a Working Definition,” Health Security 15, no. 4 (August 1, 2017): 323–28, https://doi.org/10.1089/hs.2017.0038. For another discussion of the definitional difficulties, see Jaime Yassif, “Reducing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks,” Health Security 15, no. 4 (August 1, 2017): 329–30, https://doi.org/10.1089/hs.2017.0049. 

  13. ^

     Anonymized interview with U.S. biosecurity expert.





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