DEEP VZN is a virology research project funded by USAID with the stated goal of identifying and characterising pandemic capable viruses.  In particular, they plan to make the genomes for all viruses they characterise open-source[1].  Rob Reid and Kevin Esvelt argue in a recent podcast that this poses an immense biosecurity threat as there are tens of thousands of individuals/organisations with the means + ability to use these genomes to create and proliferate said viruses, effectively turning them into WMDs.  

I mainly wanted to make this post to make the community more aware if it wasn't already - I think if you want a more thorough breakdown of the arguments for and against what DEEP VZN intends to do, Rob+Kevin's conversation is great (and decidedly lands against).  If you would like to help, they both recommend reaching out to USAID through one of the following avenues and prompting them to more carefully consider these serious downsides to funding this project:

  • Tweeting at them @usaid
  • Submitting a message at usaid.gov/contact-us
  • Calling them directly at their main line 202-712-4300

DEEP VZN's NOFO: https://indiabioscience.org/media/articles/7200AA21RFA00005-NOFO-DEEP-VZN-signed.pdf

[1] Per the bottom of page 16 / top of page 17 of their NOFO linked above.

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Hope it isn't too on the nose, but that was my thinking behind this project proposal.

I'm a former emerging/zoonotic disease epidemiologist, EcoHealth Alliance fellow, generally was all-in on DEEP VZN/PREDICT pandemic prediction type work for the better part of a decade, turned biosecurity-pilled apostate. AMA!

What will it take for bio people to treat dangerous information as if it was dangerous? Do they have a rosy view of the world, where no one would misuse it? Do they have incentives to spread the info? Is the open data movement unwittingly to do with it?

It's going to be a tough sell. The scientists involved are saturated with cultural norms and deep beliefs that more information is always better, and academic and funding incentives are aligned with that understanding.

I don't know that the "open data movement" is, like, radically influencing the beliefs of scientists involved in this kind of work, but rather they're both products of the same (mostly great) culture of openness.

I think the actual long-term solution is to influence trainees and help them rise to positions of influence. In the meantime we need to mitigating risks from these projects in ways that don't depend on changing hearts and minds of the senior scientists most highly invested in their continuation.

First, how much has COVID-19 played into your change of heart here? What do you think of Jeffrey Sachs, chair of the Lancet's COVID origins commission coming to the conclusion that a lab leak was the likely source and true investigation is being prevented?

 https://www.currentaffairs.org/2022/08/why-the-chair-of-the-lancets-covid-19-commission-thinks-the-us-government-is-preventing-a-real-investigation-into-the-pandemic

Second, if there's a non-zero chance that virological research resulted in the current pandemic, I think that it's equivalent to that unbelievable fact about Chernobyl that the USSR kept other reactors of the same design online lest they admit that a fault in their design caused the meltdown. Except in this case, it seems to me that Deep VZN is the equivalent of rolling out thousands more reactors of the same design. If a lab leak indeed is the source of the current COVID pandemic, do you think that fact is necessary to turn the policy tide here? Do you agree with my metaphor here, couched in the fact that we're not 100% sure?

 

Third, how much should MRNA vaccine technology change our risk-benefit analysis of virology that introduces new and more dangerous viruses into imperfect human custody? Treatment or prevention seem like the only two hard arguments for such work, and it seems to me the Moderna 48-hour miracle is an argument that the upside is even more indiscernable.

Fourth and finally, how do we effectively mount this argument when those who are advocating the risky approach are leading industry researchers who seem intent on snuffing out discussion that might pour cold water on their work? Cf. Daszak's coordination of the Lancet article and the Lancet commission member who helped approve EcoHealth grants recommending Sachs's recommendations be struck from the final report?

 

This is a several months old thread, but if you do see this I appreciate your input. I'm not in the field but desperately worried about this as an X-risk.

To what extent are there already similarly dangerous pathogen genomes on the internet? I'm guessing that things like smallpox are less of a worry because we already have a vaccine for them, but if many novel, certified pandemic-grade pathogen genomes are already available then adding more seems significantly less harmful.

Kevin claims there are none at the moment that he’s particularly concerned about (in large part because most such viruses we have developed vaccines / antivirals for).

I think the more important answer to this question is that most of the virus genomes available online are either from viruses that are unlikely to take off as a pandemic and/or have probably limited expected harm even if they take off. This harm being rather limited might be because most of us have some immunity against the pathogen like for the 1918 Spanish flue as most ppl got the flue (other influenza infections) before or indeed because there are plenty of vaccines available that are ready to go (like for smallpox which additionally is much harder to manufacture from the genome).

I should note that I'm not saying anything new here. This is just from the interview. Esvelt addresses this exact question at 33 / 35 mins in (depending on where you listen to it). He seems to see the claim that there are already (many) pandemic-grade pathogens available online as a common harmful misperception.