Here is a new article I wrote with Chris Bakerlee for Vox's Future Perfect on engineered pathogens and global catastrophic biorisks. We make the case for why this is a particularly important challenge, why it has so far been mostly neglected and poorly dealt with, and we discuss some steps we can take to reduce the risk. It might be useful for EAs interested in pandemic risk and risks from biotechnology as well as those interested in global catastrophic risks broadly.

5 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:23 PM
New Comment

I found this really helpful, and gave me what I expect to be actionable information I can use in my own work (I work in Democratic politics). Much appreciated!

Maybe I should've asked you the question I just asked on another post instead: as someone interested in minimizing x-risk, who should I support for President? Or better yet, who has a good compilation of candidates' records on x-risk-related issues, so I can make my own decision?

Interesting, scary stuff. I've been reading up on biotech/bioweapons a bit as part of my research on AI strategy. They're interesting both because there could be dangerous effects from AI improving bioweapons*, and because they're a relatively close analogue to AI by virtue of their dual-use, concealability, and reasonably large-scale effects.

Do you know of good sources on bioweapons strategy, offense-defense dynamics, and potential effects of future advances? I'm reading Koblentz's Living Weapons right now and it's quite good, but I haven't found many other leads. (I'd think there would be more papers on this; maybe they're mostly kept secret, or maybe I'm using the wrong keywords.)

*My impression from Koblentz is that foreseeable advances in biotech aren't hugely destabilizing, since bioattacks aren't a good strategic threat; military locations can be pretty effectively hardened against them for not-unbearable costs. One danger I'm curious about is the scope of potential attacks in 20-30 years; could there be devastating, hard-to-trace attacks on civilian populations?

I don't think there is much publicly available on this topic besides Koblentz's work (also check out his 2003 article in International Security). The "strategy of conflict" as it pertains to bioweapons is something we thought about, but we don't discuss it much in our paper. Some thoughts:

Historically bioweapons research has focused on diseases that are not transmissible person to person like Tularemia, Anthrax, Q Fever, and Botulism. If you dump a bunch of anthrax spores from an airplane over a city, you would kill a lot of people (I recall seeing a study where they estimated that if you dumped anthrax over a large city you would kill ~200,000 people) even though it's not transmissible person to person.

Japanese Unit 731 used Plague, which is transmissible person to person, but used it well behind enemy lines on enemy cities to limit collateral damage. This made this sort of weapon more of a poor man's strategic bombing campaign that could wreak havoc on civilian populations by dumping swarms of plague infested fleas on enemy territory. There is a lot of uncertainty on the actual numbers, but Unit 731 may have killed more civilians in China through these sorts of attacks than the US killed Japanese civilians in Japan from the nuclear bombs and firebombings (the exact numbers are hard to know in large part because it's hard to attribute civilian deaths directly to the released bioweapons because the weapon is meant to present itself as a natural epidemic, as we mention in the paper). There is evidence that the Japanese did sustain some collateral damage from their plague attacks against China during the war:

Starting a pandemic transmissible Person to Person in the enemy's country is probably a bad idea because it could turn into a global pandemic and there is significant collateral damage to your own country. Though, it should be noted that using other WMDs like nuclear weapons also has significant, and possibly similar scale, collateral damage. One of the dangers of future development in biotechnology is that it could make biological weapons more attractive as a weapon.

Determining strategic behavior and implications of using weapons that impose significant collateral damage to the country using them and to non-combatant countries is actually an active research topic of mine.