We're (surprisingly) more positive about tackling bio risks: outcomes of a survey

by Sanjay10 min read25th Aug 20205 comments

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CoronavirusExistential RiskCause PrioritizationBiosecurity
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Introduction

SoGive conducted a survey of some organisations tackling existential biological risks. The purpose of the survey was to understand better how we should update our opinions on bio risks as a cause area in light of COVID-19.

Prior to performing the survey, we predicted that:

  • Many more donors would have appreciated the importance of existential bio risks, and the field would have become more crowded with donors
  • The likelihood of incidence of future man-made bio risks would be somewhat improved, because some actors would be put off from using biological weapons, and we expected greater lab security
  • Governments and other actors would raise their investment in pandemic and bio risk preparedness, but probably not as much as is needed

Overall, we were expecting COVID-19 to make us less likely to recommend donations to tackle existential biological risks.

Key findings

  • COVID-19 appears to have had only a small impact on donor willingness to fund existential bio risk at this stage. This was probably our most significant update.
  • There are some reasons to believe that COVID-19 may make deliberate bio risks more likely. We believe the overall likelihood of existential bio risks to be somewhat improved, but overall little changed.
  • Survey respondents had remarkably little optimism that governments and other actors would be more effective at responding to future bio risks. We expect that there will be some institutional learning across governments and health agencies; it is unclear how long this will last.

Conclusion

  • SCALE: We believe that the scale of the risks around existential bio risks are not materially changed by COVID-19 (the likelihood of a future pandemic or other bio risk arising is not materially different because of COVID-19 having happened). We previously considered the scale of this issue to be potentially existential to the human race.
  • NEGLECTEDNESS: We expected this area to become more crowded with funders, but this does not appear to be the case. We previously considered existential bio risks to be neglected.
  • TRACTABILITY: We expect that the willingness of governments and other actors to take bio risks seriously will be somewhat better as a result of COVID-19. 

We went into this exercise expecting to find that bio risks are a less impactful cause area, because it would be more crowded. We now believe that the cause area is, if anything, slightly more attractive an area for donors to fund.

Key findings -- more detail

  • COVID-19 appears to have had only a small impact on donor willingness to fund existential bio risk at this stage. This was probably our most significant update.
    • Contrary to the outpouring of support for more popular COVID-19-linked cause areas (e.g. mutual aid groups or the NHS in the UK) COVID-19 appears to have had minimal impact on donor willingness to fund existential bio risk at this stage. It’s unclear whether this will emerge over time.
  • There are some reasons to believe that COVID-19 may make deliberate bio risks more likely. Overall we believe the overall likelihood of existential bio risks to be little changed.
    • A remarkable number of survey respondents (3 out of 4) mentioned the risk that some potential users of bio weapons may be inspired by seeing the havoc wreaked by COVID-19 to realise that a biological weapon could cause substantial disruption. We find it hard to imagine that anyone could observe COVID-19 and not realise that they can’t keep themselves safe from a pandemic. However we accept that certain niche groups or terrorist cells and other rare exceptions may indeed be inspired by COVID-19. We heard reports of disappointingly small amounts of investment in improved lab security thus far. However we expect that there probably will be at least some actors who understand better how hard it is to control a pathogen, and will therefore be put off.
  • Survey respondents had remarkably little optimism that governments and other actors would be more effective at responding to future bio risks.
    • A number of them used the phrase “From panic to neglect”, which echoes the title of a World Bank paper. They largely believed that pandemics and other bio risks have continued to be subject to a cycle where governments take them seriously and then memories are short and they are neglected again. We believe that an issue of the magnitude of COVID-19 will likely not be forgotten soon, and that funding for pandemic preparedness will likely be safe for much longer than in the aftermath of previous pandemics. In particular it may persist long enough to become institutionalised and therefore harder to cut. However we do fear that survey respondents may be correct in highlighting the risk of overindexing. I.e. there may be appetite for future work on things that look like COVID-19, but not other related things (e.g. man-made bio risks may be neglected, even though these are more likely and probably more fatal, and despite the fact that some believe that COVID-19 was leaked because of human error)

Survey of bio risk orgs

These are the questions we posed:

  • Do you think that the world will handle future pandemics and bio risks better as a result of having gone through the current coronavirus pandemic?
  • Do you think future bio risks will be more likely, less likely, or unchanged in likelihood as a result of the current pandemic? (it may help to split between deliberate man-made risks, accidental man-made, and natural)
  • How do you think the willingness of key actors such as governments (but excluding donors) to tackle bio risks will change in light of the current pandemic?
  • Have you seen signs that donor interest in tackling bio risks has changed or will change in light of the current pandemic?

Below we set out a highly summarised version of our (SoGive’s) answers to those questions, informed by the survey responses we received.




This colour-based depiction is deliberately impressionistic, to avoid giving the impression that this is more scientific than it really is.

Several of the participants were keen to highlight that responses were rough and were not solid, confident predictions.


Notes from individual calls


Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)

From call on 23rd June 2020 with Joan Rohlfing, President and COO of NTI

  • Do you think that the world will handle future pandemics and bio risks better as a result of having gone through the current coronavirus pandemic?
    • Would like to be able to say that as humans, we will be able to adapt. But there’s not a lot of good evidence at the moment that we will take the right steps. We’re seeing states retreat, build high walls, and become less globalised. And signs of anti globalisation trends and anti science trends, are negative indicators when global cooperation is exactly what’s needed to handle these issues better in the future. Good Leadership is key to our future preparedness.
  • Do you think future bio risks will be more likely, less likely, or unchanged in likelihood after the current pandemic? (it may help to split between deliberate man-made risks, accidental man-made, and natural)
    • It is pretty clear that bio risks will become more likely. This is because of general trends that predated coronavirus such as technological developments, climate change, population growth, urbanisation and global travel. This is because of general trends that predated coronavirus. Already this century we’ve had four major global disease outbreaks (Swine Flu, MERS, Ebola, COVID-19) -- almost double the rate of previous centuries. In terms of whether COVID-19 actually causes future bio risks to be more likely, NTI preferred not to make a strong comment either way on this point.
  • How do you think the willingness of key actors such as governments (but excluding donors) to tackle bio risks will change in light of the current pandemic?
    • In the near term, we’ll have a higher degree of attention on better preparing for pandemics
    • It’s unclear whether we will see the right levels of political competence and focused engagement to facilitate the right investments for enduring improvements and attention that last into the future but we have a unique opportunity to work for lasting change.
  • Have you seen signs that donor interest in tackling bio risks has changed or will change in light of the current pandemic?
    • There is now lots of attention on biological risks. And several donors such as Bill Gates and Jack Dorsey have been pledging substantial amounts.
    • The risk is that donors overly focus on naturally occurring biological risks like COVID, without considering that other things also constitute existential risks, like manmade pathogens or nuclear war that also deserve attention.

Centre for Study of Existential Risk (CSER)

From call on 26th June 2020 with Catherine Rhodes, Executive Director of CSER

  • How do you think the willingness of key actors such as governments (but excluding donors) to tackle bio risks will change in light of the current pandemic?
    • Short window of opportunity in which things might change
    • Might be c 3-5 years window, perhaps
    • Huge economic damage means that the appetite for thinking further ahead might not be there because governments will be focusing on immediate economic recovery needs
    • It’s not the case that the world didn’t know that pandemics could cause huge damage and coronavirus has now educated us. It was clear that this sort of event was going to happen. The world bank has been putting out warnings; see for example, the World Bank paper “From Panic to neglect
  • Do you think that the world will handle future pandemics and bio risks better as a result of having gone through the current coronavirus pandemic?
    • Slightly pessimistic
    • Probably not
    • Depends when the next one hits
    • If it happens within 5-10 years, we would have boosted ability
    • In the scientific side, the huge rush to innovate probably leaves a legacy
    • There’s about a 20% probability that we might get better, probably not going to get worse
  • Do you think future bio risks will be more likely, less likely, or unchanged in likelihood after the current pandemic? (it may help to split between deliberate man-made risks, accidental man-made, and natural)
    • More likely, in that that was the trend already
    • Unchanged by covid
    • Our economies will go back to interconnectedness
    • We will have more contact with wildlife as we encroach further into their habitats
    • Deliberate bio risks could go two ways. Potential users of bio weapons might see that this is really disruptive, so might make it more appealing. Conversely might see that there is really no way of making sure that bio risks are contained and won’t affect your own people
    • Increased research utilising dangerous pathogens is a source of risk requiring greater attention to biosafety
  • Have you seen signs that donor interest in tackling bio risks has changed or will change in light of the current pandemic?
    • Not seen much indication at the moment
    • However a small number of specific funders are starting to think about existential bio risks a bit more

Bio risk at CISAC, Stanford

From call on 26th June 2020 with Megan Palmer, Deputy Director of the Biosecurity Initiative at Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), Stanford

  • How do you think the willingness of key actors such as governments (but excluding donors) to tackle bio risks will change in light of the current pandemic?
    • People are now socialised to the risk, so will take the risks more seriously, but this will differ by risk types.
    • We have seen a long history of over-indexing on the most recent high profile incidents and environments, including before they are fully understood. For example there was over-indexing on outsider threats in the midst of the anthrax response. Based on past experience, it seems likely that there might be longer term neglect of certain types of risks.
    • We may see general build-up of capabilities around pandemic response, which will likely be helpful for naturally occurring infectious disease. But there may be less attention on deliberate and accidental bio risks that may look very different.
  • Do you think that the world will handle future pandemics and bio risks better as a result of having gone through the current coronavirus pandemic?
    • We should expect organisational learning and prioritisation
    • But on balance we should likely expect over-indexing/over-fitting based on what’s happened previously, and not enough planning and preparation relating to biological risks that don’t look like what’s come most recently
  • Do you think future bio risks will be more likely, less likely, or unchanged in likelihood after the current pandemic? (it may help to split between deliberate man-made risks, accidental man-made, and natural)
    • We should expect some organisational learning and prioritisation as a result of COVID-19
    • We need more work on understanding and modeling origins of biological risks, without which it’s hard to give definitive answers
    • We may well see extra work happening to increase our overall understanding of SARS-CoV-2 in particular and viruses in general as a result of the current pandemic. But does understanding viruses increase or decrease our risk? The extra knowledge may well be valuable, but accidents can happen as a result of people doing scientific work which is intended to tackle a pathogen, especially when the rush of people tackling the problem means that people without experience of working with infectious pathogens are involved.
    • There are state and non-state actors who may have not been interested in or otherwise discounted biological weapons who now may become interested. It’s still not fully understood how terrorists get inspired about ways to use biology as a weapon, and socialising threats can cause information hazards
    • Also as research develops, it makes it easier for low skilled or medium skilled actors to generate pathogens
  • Have you seen signs that donor interest in tackling bio risks has changed or will change in light of the current pandemic?
    • We have not seen a noticeable uptick in donations because of COVID but have tried not to be opportunistic.
    • To a certain extent this is also a function of us spending time talking to senior politicians and others in government and the commercial sector on immediate response and not having the time to broadcast this value to the outside world.
    • Many of our colleagues working in adjacent areas have seen some donor interest on secondary effects (e.g. the impact of COVID-19 on geopolitics).
    • This may also be another example of over-indexing -- everyone is focused on the immediate response efforts (contact tracing etc) but not a lot of what will happen if a worse biological risk hits us in the future. We’ve been focused on this longer term strategy.

Johns Hopkins CHS

From call on 4th Aug 2020 with Anita Cicero, Deputy Director and COO of the Center for Health Security

  • Do you think that the world will handle future pandemics and bio risks better as a result of having gone through the current coronavirus pandemic?
    • In general yes, we should expect there to be some learning and improvement. Countries have often struggled with getting sufficient attention and resources to outbreak preparedness
    • There will probably be more money going into public health and maybe the military as well
    • Asian countries certainly seem better prepared as a result of their past experience
  • Do you think future bio risks will be more likely, less likely, or unchanged in likelihood after the current pandemic? (it may help to split between deliberate man-made risks, accidental man-made, and natural)
    • Hard to say at this moment
    • Need to secure biosafety practices in labs; hopefully more people will appreciate that this is really important. Tentatively optimistic about this, however I don’t think I’ve seen as much as I’d like to see about the importance of this.
    • Could inspire those who want to do harm to see the power of a released pathogen in the community. E.g. an independent group or some state actors who have an interest in the development of bio weapons might feel encouraged. Hopefully, these groups will see that it’s hard to control a pandemic once it starts, so this may also act as a deterrent. But overall, we’re not expecting this pandemic will turn people away from bioweapons.
  • How do you think the willingness of key actors such as governments (but excluding donors) to tackle bio risks will change in light of the current pandemic?
    • I expect there will be some additional investment in this area, although there could also be a funding fatigue once we get through this pandemic. A large and enduring investment in biosecurity may be difficult to achieve, especially at the moment when governments are spending so much on COVID
    • Standard public health budgets are different line items, and you could just up the budgets to, say, something similar or more than what it was in 2003, when it was much higher than today.
    • However it’s worrying that existential threats look likely to remain underinvested in
  • Have you seen signs that donor interest in tackling bio risks has changed or will change in light of the current pandemic?
    • Have seen some modest uptick in donors who want to give to covid response. Not sure that that will translate to a longer term interest or commitment to the health space going forward. We are so used to the panic neglect cycle. Uptick mostly (but not entirely) from people in the Effective Altruism community.


Appendix: notes on how the survey was conducted

First we made a list of all the organisations which we knew of which were working on existential biological risks. These were

  • Nuclear Threat Initiative
  • Biological Risk initiative at CISAC, Stanford
  • Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security
  • Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER)
  • Future of Humanity Institute (FHI)

We invited each organisation to participate in the survey. All agreed apart from FHI. During the surveys, we did also ask some of the surveyed organisations whether there were other groups whom we should have included. The only organisation mentioned was a group at Georgetown, whom we understand to be CSET. We were not able to include them in our survey as well.

The method of administering the questions was to ask them verbally in a call. In a larger scale survey, there may be good reasons for careful administering of questions, and the need to specify the precise wording of the questions to be used. As this is a small survey, we deliberately chose to administer the survey in a more conversational way, to allow participants the opportunity to express their views more naturally.

Participants had the opportunity to review the notes from their call before publication.

We thank the participants for taking part in this survey.

This post was authored by SoGive analyst Sanjay and reviewed by SoGive analyst Alex.

About SoGive: SoGive is an organisation that performs analysis of charities and cause areas to enable donors to have more impact.

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