No More Pandemics: a lobbying group?

by Sanjay11 min read2nd Oct 202018 comments

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Biosecurity
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The concept in a nutshell

There are currently grassroots movements for activists who want to tackle climate change/animal suffering/etc.

However, despite the current salience and vividness of pandemics, no civil society (or “grassroots”) movement around the importance of future pandemics appears to exist.

This write-up is intended as a request for feedback on an early-stage idea: to spawn such a group. In particular, I’m interested to know:

  • Are there any groups already doing this?
  • Are there people reading this who would be interested in taking part?
  • Are there ways that this group could do harm? (Including surmountable risks (i.e. if the group took care there would be no harm) and insurmountable risks (i.e. this group shouldn’t exist))

This is still at the ideas stage.

What do biosecurity experts think of the idea?

I have had informal discussions with several biosecurity experts, including leaders at organisations funded by Open Philanthropy and other academics.

Several were extremely enthusiastic.

Indeed, to give credit where it’s due, the idea came from one of them, not from me.

People in one organisation were very cautious, with caution around (among other things) attention hazards. I’ve created an appendix around attention hazards and another appendix which lists responses from different biosecurity groups.

How would it actually work?

The concept is new and this is intended more as a consultation than a carefully set out plan.

However inspiration can be drawn from existing organisations.

I have some experience of this sort of volunteering: I have done a small amount of volunteering with Results UK and Amnesty, and have heard about The Humane League’s action parties and Fast Action Network. A typical model for such groups involves volunteers coming to events to hear updates, and then they are given relatively easy-to-implement tasks to express their activism. This could include writing letters (which could be as easy as picking up a pre-written letter, signing your own name at the bottom, and posting it), spreading petitions, talking to local politicians, talking to the press, etc. Results UK appears able to have an impact on policy with a smallish (~100) group of volunteers spread across the UK.

An important task is working out which policy asks to focus on and when and how to ask them. This research work is typically done by staff in existing organisations (like Results UK and Amnesty). The No More Pandemics lobbying group would likely also need this to be done by staff (or possibly by dedicated volunteers at first) as it would involve liaising closely with biosecurity experts.

While I haven’t nailed down a precise picture of what this group would look like, I’m more inclined towards a few hundred citizens writing to their representatives with the support of a small staff team (as opposed to, say, hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets). This is partly because of the concerns about attention hazards (see appendix). It’s also because it’s easier to keep the policy asks sophisticated, which I suspect is what we need.

Note that I have used the term “grassroots” in this write-up. Some people have very specific connotations for this term, but all I have in mind is “anyone other than a biosecurity expert”.

Another note on terminology: if someone creates a bioweapon and the pathogen spreads around the world, I would refer to this as a pandemic (I think some might argue that pandemics are only pandemics if they are natural).

Note that there are campaigning groups who focus on other topics who are drawing on the links between their cause area and pandemics. E.g. campaigners interested in factory farming, climate change, conservation all have some common cause with those worried about pandemics. However their asks are likely to be the asks that are relevant to their cause area, meaning that the policy asks biosecurity experts are interested in would be ignored (see, e.g., the policy asks section below).

Task Y

More on the Task Y concept can be found here. The purpose of this piece is not to discuss the Task Y concept in any depth, however to the extent that this idea is potentially useful, it may be relevant here. You do not need to understand this in order to appreciate the rest of this post.

Could this project do harm?

My impression is that this project involves risks that could be managed if run carefully. (See appendix on attention hazards)

If this project was arranged in close conversation with experts, it could actually reduce risk, because it may pre-empt the formation of another group (who isn’t in touch with experts).

However part of the aim of writing this post is to explore this question.

What has been done thus far?

What I have done

  • Mentioned the idea (briefly) to several biosecurity experts, who were largely positive about it
  • To test out the concept, I tried emailing my MP expressing my concerns about future pandemics. I did not request a meeting -- every time I’ve written a letter to my MP in the past it’s never resulted in a meeting, and I didn’t expect one. However in this case the MP asked to meet with me. I understand that he does not grant meetings to anyone who asks, so this initial step seems (thus far) to be yielding positive results. (Although this might just be luck.)

What others have done

  • Groups like CSER and FHI in the UK have had significant media coverage (Guardian, Economist, Times) in recent months talking about preventing future risks and future pandemics. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has also been frequently in the press, mostly on topics specific to COVID-19, although occasionally also on more general pandemic preparedness. I am not aware of any members of the public taking action as a result of this media work.

I’m focusing here on “grassroots” people (i.e. “ordinary” citizens) asking their governments to keep them safe from future (not current) pandemics. There have also been plenty of interactions between expert groups and governments (e.g. some US groups such as Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Nuclear Threat Initiative have been speaking to their own government and international governments very intensively).

What would next steps be?

If there are signs that a small group of people are interested in being involved, then it would be worth investigating this further.

I imagine us going back to the biosecurity orgs who are interested and probing further on:

  • How exactly do they think that grassroots support would help them
  • If they had to choose between spending $100k (or whatever it would cost) on (a) this project, or (b) whichever project is next on their list, would they choose (a) or (b)?
  • Which policy areas/asks should be prioritised?
  • What are their opinions on attention hazards, and how those should best be mitigated?

Once there has been enough thinking to give us confidence that the benefits outweigh the risks sufficiently, other steps include:

  • Liaising with other organisations which are experienced at campaigning to get their help
  • Taking some actions (such as writing to MPs/representatives some more)

Why pandemics? (using the I-T-N framework)

Having considered several things under the ITN framework (Importance, Tractability, Neglectedness) I’ve found it to be exceedingly rare that something scores highly under all three criteria. However this appears (perhaps?) to apply for grassroots lobbying on the topic of pandemics.

Tackling pandemic risk is likely to be politically tractable

  • Now that the world has experienced COVID-19, everyone understands that pandemics could be bad

Grassroots lobbying on the topic is neglected

  • While there are some people who talk to governments about bio risks, when I asked bio risk experts about this idea, they also seemed to think that there was no grassroots lobbying on the topic of pandemics/bio risks.
  • Linked to this are counterfactual considerations: would governments decide to take action on pandemics anyway, even in the absence of lobbying?
    • From what I can gather from having discussed this with various biosecurity experts, governments *are* working hard to respond to the current COVID crisis, but they are not naturally being triggered to think ahead to future potential pandemics and bio risks very much.
    • Indeed, the experts I spoke to mostly expressed a remarkable amount of pessimism that governments would respond with an adequate level of future preventative measures
    • However it’s possible that their perspective is skewed by their line of work

Importance: Biological risks (including man made bio risks) have a relatively high probability of causing extreme catastrophes, including existential risks.


The above table is from Toby Ord’s book The Precipice. While I don’t advise treating these numbers as totally solid, a key claim is that the probability of a pandemic causing an extreme event is relatively high for the following reasons:

  • The technology that enables people to create pathogens keeps improving, making it ever easier for fewer people to create pathogens
  • Major military bodies would hopefully realise that unleashing pathogens is a bad idea (although this is not obviously the case: as mentioned in this survey, there seems to be potentially *some* evidence for the claim that some parties are *more* interested in bio weapons post-covid; it’s not clear how seriously to take that claim)
  • However it’s still possible that certain extreme groups might be attracted to them.
  • Also, major military groups may develop bioweapons and then a lab accident could cause a leakage

I became more convinced of the value of tackling biological risks as a result of the work done for SoGive (an organisation I founded which does charity analysis to support donors). More on this can be found here.

Although I do believe that tackling biorisks is a high-impact area of work, I think it’s very rare for all three of those areas to be rated positively -- sufficiently rare that scepticism is in order. (Is it really true that the topic is tractable in light of COVID, but wouldn’t have happened without lobbying?) Having said that, there is enough of a case to be made in favour of tackling pandemics that I think it should at least be considered as a top area for grassroots lobbyists to work on.

Why pandemics? (as opposed to other topics)

It seems plain that potentially existential risks are clearly the most important ones under certain longtermist views, and are still very good things to work on under most other views. You can find more on this topic in an appendix.

I now run through some other topics that are relevant from a longtermist lens.

AI risk:

  • Seems less likely to be politically tractable (few MPs/representatives likely to take it seriously, and few members of the public are interested as well)
  • If the cause did get taken up by a broader population, it would likely get confused with less catastrophic/non-existential risks associated with AI
  • Less clear what to ask for (a vague ask isn’t helpful)
  • Creating more noise could lead to unhelpful unintended consequences (e.g. politicians introduce reactive and ineffective regulation to demonstrate that they are responding to popular demand)

Climate change:

  • Already has lots of activism happening (e.g. Extinction rebellion in the UK)
  • Less likely to cause severe (extinction-level) catastrophes than bio risks

Nuclear war:

  • Already has lots of activism happening (e.g. CND)
  • Less likely to cause severe (extinction-level) catastrophes than bio risks

Natural risks (e.g. asteroids of supervolcanoes):

  • Seems less likely to be politically tractable (because people feel more responsibility to sort out the problems that humanity has caused)
  • Less likely to cause severe (extinction-level) catastrophes than bio risks

General longtermism:

  • More likely to be a “wonky” ask; less likely to appeal to a broader public, whereas something more tangible would probably appeal more, especially pandemics given the current COVID situation
  • The proportion of people who place equal value on those in the far future seems to be low (for example, in this earlier piece of research conducted by SoGive, the proportion of respondents who appeared to place roughly equal value on future lives as present day lives was roughly 15%(ish)).

What sort of policy asks could the group make?

I list here several potential policy asks, without trying to assess each one carefully. The intent is to demonstrate that there *are* several promising-sounding asks, not to suggest that these are the best.

  • Provide more funding to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)
    • The BWC came about in the 1970s, in the midst of the Cold War
    • This meant that the BWC was created with no “teeth”
    • This continues to have implications today: the BWC remains underfunded
    • The Chemical Weapons Convention was created in the 1990s
    • The BWC receives c$1-2m pa; for chemical weapons it’s $80m
  • Provide more funding to the WHO to tackle pandemics
    • Recent US threats to pull funding for the WHO has been extremely damaging
    • Note: while this was being drafted, the UK decided to increase its funding to the WHO; unclear whether this will be sustained after 4 years from now
  • Initiate a global commitment to funding pandemic work, (cf the 0.7% ODA commitment)
  • Create a code of conduct for biologists (this is expected to come up at the next BWC meeting in Nov 2021)
  • Create a mechanism for biologists to communicate the risks around a virulent pathogen safely
    • e.g. if a scientist discovers that a pathogen is particularly risky, we need a way for them to let other scientists know; however simply publishing this information poses info hazards
  • Introduce stronger lab security requirements
  • Create an IAEA for biology labs handling pathogens
    • The International Atomic Energy Agency works to make nuclear power safer by reducing the chance that nuclear energy is used for nuclear weapons and also improving the security of nuclear power plants.
  • Implement the country’s own existing biological security strategy (e.g. this document published in 2018 in the UK, or the equivalent in the US which I believe is this document)
    • I haven’t reviewed these documents in any detail myself, but have been told by a biosecurity expert that these are good strategies, and certainly good enough that we would have been well-prepared for COVID if they had been implemented

Appendix: Summary of comments from biosecurity orgs

I have raised this discussion with a number of biosecurity organisations, typically as an add-on in a meeting on another topic (i.e. typically not in any depth).

I summarise here my impression of their opinion on the idea. I have anonymised their comments, because I didn’t ask them if they were willing to be quoted on this in the public domain.

Most (but not all) of the organisations quoted here are either funded by Open Phil, or recommended by Founders Pledge or SoGive, or otherwise EA-adjacent. Most of the individuals that I spoke to had leadership roles within their organisation.

  • Organisation 1: Highly enthusiastic; indeed it was their idea, not mine. Made comparisons with other areas (e.g. climate change, nuclear, etc) and wished they had the same support from the voting population
  • Organisation 2: Also highly enthusiastic, and (unprompted, I think) made comparisons with other movements (i.e. similar to the comments made by org 1)
  • Organisation 3: Also highly enthusiastic, and has been offering some time to help me prepare for my meeting with my MP
  • Organisation 4: Seemed positive. Did not express very obvious enthusiasm, although I think that reflected a pensive personality (as opposed to hesitation about the concept)
  • Organisation 5: Seemed positive, but also mentioned that achieving any kind of change in this area is difficult. Although it’s not clear whether that comment was intended to be specific to a lobbying group or more general; also I don’t think the comment was meant to be comparative (i.e. I don't think they were saying that achieving traction with biorisk is harder than anything else)
  • Organisation 6: One person at this org was very hesitant. Said they could imagine a version of this project they were happy with, but overall gave a very circumspect reaction. Interestingly also said that they weren’t clear on what upside they would get, which seemed at odds with other organisations who had done lots of working with governments and who said that it would really help. When I made this comment, the response was that they stood by their opinion, weren’t surprised that others might disagree, but also said that their opinion was non-resilient. I mentioned this to another person at this org and they raised a concern about attention hazards (see separate appendix)

Nobody appeared to think that another group was already doing something in this space.

With none of these organisations did I discuss exactly what this campaigning group would look like. I didn’t want to have an in-depth conversation about it with them before I know that there are some people who are interested in being involved.

Appendix: Attention hazards

Attention hazards refer to the risk that more public awareness of biorisks could encourage or enable malicious actors to use or develop harmful biotech. (The language has a parallel with the term “info hazards”)

However greater attention has potential benefits too.

Biorisk organisations appear to believe that the benefits can outweigh the hazards, as evinced by the facts that:

  • Most biorisk organisations, when asked, have stated that they believe a grassroots movement would be a positive (although this might be because the conversations have been brief and they hadn’t considered it carefully enough)
  • As mentioned in the above section “What has been done thus far?” several biorisk orgs are already talking to national press about biosafety.
  • COVID already increases attention, so it’s unclear how much further difference a campaigning group would make, especially if the group focuses on policymakers.
  • Hence it seems plausible that with careful thought and consideration of what information goes public and through consultation with experts the risks could be largely mitigated.

Indeed, it is plausible that starting such a group could help mitigate information hazards

  • it pre-empts someone else who is not worried about information hazards form starting such a group
  • some of the asks (like supporting Secure DNA [link: https://www.securedna.org/main-en]) would help manage information risks

Importantly, the *type* of lobbying group matters.

  • A group of 100,000 rabble-rousing protesters overrunning the streets may carry material attention hazards.
  • A group of 300 sober letter-writers is unlikely to attract the attention of anyone other than the political representatives they are writing to.

In order to give attention hazards a bit more thought, I considered how different sources of bio risk will be affected by more attention/public awareness. Note that I have given this a fairly cursory level of consideration, however my thoughts are below.



  • The size of the impact of more attention is shown in bold in the table above
  • The impact referred to is intended to cover the “pure” attention effects; i.e. it includes effects such as “how do people behave differently when there is more cultural awareness of biorisks” and aims to exclude the main intended benefits (e.g. the lobbying results in policy changes which results in improved outcomes). That said, disentangling the two is hard.
  • The sizings of the effects given in bold in the table above are highly subjective
  • On balance, it appears to me that the benefits are similar in scale or even outweigh the hazards

It is possible to disagree with the assessments that I made in the table above.

Appendix: Targeted, urgent longtermism, patient longtermism, and Task Y

A recent 80,000 hours podcast sets out the following types of longtermism:

  1. Patient longtermism
  2. Broad urgent longtermism
  3. Targeted urgent longtermism focused on existential risks
  4. Targeted urgent longtermism focused on other trajectory changes

The No More Pandemics campaigning concept is most compelling for those inspired by type 3 longtermism (bold and underlined above).

It’s also reasonable to argue that this project could contribute to patient longtermism as well. One might believe this if you thought this project was a candidate for “Task Y”. In other words, involving people in this project could

  • help people get involved in *doing* something EA-related (as opposed to just reading things)
  • while still not asking for a big commitment (such as giving away lots of money or changing career).

Hence you may believe this to be a high-impact project from a movement building perspective.

The links to the other two types of longtermism are more tenuous.

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18 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:27 AM
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Lobbying v. grassroots advocacy

This is just semantic but I think you probably don't want to call what you're proposing a "lobbying group." Lobbying usually refers to one particular form of advocacy (face to face meetings with legislators) and in many countries[1] it is regulated more heavily than other forms of advocacy.

(It's possible that in the UK, "lobbying group" means something more general but in the U.S.)

[1] This is true in the U.S., which I know best. Wikipedia suggests it's true in the EU but appears less true in the UK.

Who else is working on this?

Here are a couple small examples of things being done along these lines, though I agree there is little overall:

-Resolve to Save Lives claims to do some advocacy for epidemic preparedness in low-income countries in collaboration with the Global Health Advocacy Incubator. The latter group seems to be hiring an Advocacy Director though the posting is old so I wouldn't be surprised if it's out of date.

-PATH has done some advocacy to encourage the U.S. government to invest in global health security.

This is very useful, thank you!

Yes lobbying prevents charity / nonprofit registration in the USA, but advocacy doesn't.

Seems like it could be a good idea if implemented well. A couple considerations come to mind:

• I think it's possible for something like this to inadvertently cause harm by pushing policies that are good for combatting natural pandemics but also increase the chances of/potential severity of engineered pandemics. Should be avoidable if the leaders of the group are in communication with experts that focus on engineered pandemics.

• I'd strongly recommend engaging with people who do political polling (such as people who work at Data for Progress) when deciding political priorities. Pushing policies that are popular is presumably much more tractable than pushing those that are not, and pollsters could help you determine which policies fit into which category.

Strong upvote. This all seems very well-reasoned. As someone who has worked in political organizing-adjacent roles in the US for most of 2010 - 2020 I think there is an opportunity to have an outsized impact by doing this well, and you've cogently outlined a way to do this well that I think would translate well to bipartisan federal advocacy in the US. I'd be happy to brainstorm more at some point, too.

Excellent idea!

The problem seems to be our recent successes with Ebola, SARS, MERS and H1N1 lulled us into a false sense of security. The main risk of under-reacting to a future pandemic is probably a couple of generations out.

How do you build a “No More Pandemics” movement today that will still be seen as relevant after most of us are gone?

Annual events and permanent monuments such as Remembrance Day, the Vietnam War Memorial and Holocaust Memorials can remind future generations of the horrors of the past. But would a "No More Pandemics" day or monuments to the lives lost be enough to convince future generations to question their own false sense of security?

Thank you!

How long until the world risks under-reacting to a pandemic?

There's an uncertainty over how long we'll remain well-prepared for a future pandemic. For example, this study (conducted by my organisation SoGive) surveyed some biorisk orgs. To see the answers, I suggest looking at this comment, and reviewing the answers to the first question:

"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?"

As can be seen, there were several pessimistic answers. I think we should expect there to be some selection effects and biases in these answers, but the concerns around overindexing do strike me as reasonable.

In any case, I agree that a lasting impact sounds valuable.

How to have a lasting impact?

Some of the policy proposals are designed to have a longer-term impact. For example, strengthening the BWC would hopefully last some decades (assuming that institutional inertia has the effect I'm hoping for, although I'm unclear how likely this is). Also, the funding commitment (similar to the 0.7% ODA commitment) is also intended to last a long time.

However it's far from clear that this would last for generations.

Your idea of remembrance days and memorials is really interesting, and something I hadn't thought of.

And it does strike me that the 1918 pandemic had huge societal impacts, but most of the world was oblivious to this pre-COVID.

Gradual changes in institutional norms and traditions in other domains can provide transferrable lessons. For example, economists and politicians handled the 2008 Financial Crisis far better than the 1930s Great Depression. Perhaps if they hadn't disregarded the lessons from the depression they could have prevented the financial crisis altogether. I've been reading Arguing with Zombies by Paul Krugman and the long-term challenges with "No More Pandemics" (great branding, btw) sound similar.

Scott Alexander nicely summarizes this tension between tradition and rationality in his review of Joseph Henrich's The Secret of Our Success :

Rationalists always wonder: how come people aren’t more rational? How come you can prove a thousand times, using Facts and Logic, that something is stupid, and yet people will still keep doing it?

Henrich hints at an answer: for basically all of history, using reason would get you killed.

I've been enjoying reading the history of Wu Lien-Teh.* This is really getting into the weeds here, but if we want anti-pandemic political group with a longtermist focus, I think it would be really great to have a historical tie in with the great pioneers of the past (and, unfortunately, present) who fought the good fight against pandemics.

*Side note: If anybody can get me access to his autobiography for less than $100 in the US, I'd really appreciate it; I already tried contacting the Wu Lien-Teh society.

Cool, I'd never heard of him, thanks!

Sounds very promising.

Nuclear war:
Already has lots of activism happening (e.g. CND)
Less likely to cause severe (extinction-level) catastrophes than bio risks

I would agree that there is a lot of activism on preventing nuclear war and reducing arsenals, but there is not much on having backup plans.

I agree that the existential threat from engineered pandemics is probably greater than nuclear war, but the existential threat from natural pandemics is probably less than nuclear war.

Allfed's work is very exciting, and I hope you all do great things and ensure we are all kept safe.

My intuition says that the No More Pandemics concept would resonate more with the voting population (and, perhaps as important, would seem to the typical political representative to resonate more with the voting population) than a backup plan concept. But I could be persuaded otherwise.

Excellent post, and the timing is great!

It may be possible to support good work by WHO and others with PR as well as cash, highlighting work they do in smaller countries where pandemics could start (Laos, Liberia, LA!)

There must be specific aspects of pandemic prevention which are neglected in some places, and a nonprofit or campaigning group could make the difference?

I can imagine donations/legacies from many who died or were affected by COVID-19, so there's no time to lose!

The growth of ALLFED.info could be a model? My first step was to find an author who wrote a book, and ALSO wanted things to happen, but you could equally pick a report from WHO or Gates or Michael Minha?

This journal could be useful:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/disaster-medicine-and-public-health-preparedness

The venue of advocacy here will depend at least in part on the policies you decide are worth advocating. Even with hundreds of grassroots volunteers, it will be hard to ensure the fidelity of the message you are trying to communicate. It is hard at first blush to imagine how greater attention to pandemic preparedness could do harm, but it is not difficult that simply exhorting government to "do something" could have bad consequences.

Given the situation, it seems likely that governments preparing for future pandemics without clear guidance will prepare for a repeat of the pandemic that is already happening, rather than a different and worse one in future.

Once you select certain highly effective policy worth advocating (for example, an outbreak contingency fund), that's the stage at which to determine the venue and the tactic. I'm not a bio expert, but it's not difficult to imagine that once you identify a roster of potential policies, the most effective in expectation may involve, for example, lobbying Heathrow Airport Holdings or the Greater London Authority rather than Parliament.

Thanks Matt, this is very much appreciated.

I agree that exhorting government to just "do something" sounds clearly suboptimal, and possibly unhelpful.

Using the initial steps that I've taken thus far as a model, it's involved speaking to existing biosecurity experts closely to work out precisely what to ask for (a process which is still ongoing).

Considering exactly who is the right group to lobby does indeed make sense, thank you for raising this.

Now that the world has experienced COVID-19, everyone understands that pandemics could be bad

I found it somewhat surprising how quickly the pandemic was polarized politically; I am curious whether you expect this group to be partisan, and whether that would be a positive or negative factor.

[A related historical question: what were the political party memberships of members of environmental groups in the US across time? I would vaguely suspect that it started off more even than it is today.]

As far as I'm aware (and it might be worth finding/doing some research to verify this?)

  • The *response* to the pandemic is politicised, and more so in the US than elsewhere (or at least more so than the UK, and probably elsewhere too)
  • The view that pandemics are bad and we should prevent them if we can has bilateral support
  • Hence I think it's probably more straightforward for this group to be on the side of defeating pandemics, and not take sides politically

However that's lots that I don't know about politics, esp in the US, so if someone knows more than me about this I'm happy to hear alternative views.