Peak defense vs trough defense in biosecurity

by ASB3 min read16th Dec 20214 comments


Civilizational collapseBiosecurityExistential risk

Many biosecurity interventions (e.g. faster vaccine manufacturing, strengthening the biological weapons convention) are useful against a wide category of biological risks, including the extreme worst cases as well as less extreme risks. However, it is worth highlighting areas where this is not the case, since things that are useful primarily for extreme worst-case risks might be especially neglected (and when I talk about “extreme worst-case risks,” I mean the kind that could threaten permanent civilizational collapse and would be especially important under a longtermist framework).

Some interventions with this property might look something like ‘protect a small population at all costs,’ with the canonical example being bunkers (which does nothing for the vast majority of current people, but provides extra protection for a small and lucky handful). If we assume that civilization could ultimately recover even with a relatively small number of survivors, these interventions would still be worthwhile (for more on why this assumption is likely true, see here).

Many other areas of biosecurity could look substantially different under a strategy that prioritizes survival in the most extreme scenarios. A few illustrative examples:

  • Medical countermeasures (e.g. vaccines): for prioritizing survival, one might focus on ensuring a countermeasure can be successfully developed at all, rather than ensuring that existing countermeasures can get fast regulatory approval or widespread distribution.
  • Personal protective equipment: for prioritizing survival, one might focus on developing entirely new types of advanced PPE, e.g. a self-sterilizing hazmat suit, rather than ensuring that we have N95s for everybody.
  • Geographic quarantine: for prioritizing survival, one might focus on 100% successful quarantine on an island like New Zealand or other naturally defensible areas, rather than partial quarantine improvements everywhere else in the world.

The general theme here is that rather than shoring up weak points (i.e. ‘trough defense’), survival is best ensured by making the strongest defense point even stronger (i.e. ‘peak defense’). The hypothesis is that if we were to succumb to a biological risk to the point of causing an existential catastrophe, it was because we entirely lacked some capability, rather than because we had some partial capability that wasn't widespread enough.[1]

I generally believe this hypothesis, although with a few big caveats. For example, even the strongest defense points might rely on widespread supply chains and thus depend on a fairly large/dispersed population that would need to be protected even with an emphasis on ‘peak defense’. For example, the Pfizer vaccine against COVID has something like 280 components from lots of different countries. If avoiding permanent collapse depended on even a small number of doses of that vaccine, getting to that point could still require total protection of many millions of people around the world.

In other words, building a handful of self-sterilizing hazmat suits is not going to cut it, and I expect many successful ‘peak defense’ strategies to still involve scaling to the point of protecting millions of people. But even with a more expansive version of peak defense, I expect that compared to normal pandemic preparedness measures, these strategies will look to many people like unhinged overkill (e.g. stockpiling 50 million super hazmat suits to protect every essential worker in the US, sequencing everything at all ports of entry for a small island, putting vaccine manufacturing capacity in a bunker, etc).

Another important point: some peak defense investments basically only matter for extreme worst cases (e.g. bunkers), but others have broader benefits. For example, investments in new technologies that are especially good for peak defense might start out looking like they only have narrow benefits but eventually produce spillover benefits that are distributed more widely. For example, nanopore sequencing might be considered ‘overkill’ compared to cheaper diagnostic methods, but this technology was more flexible and empowered healthcare workers in West Africa during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. We might expect a more general correlation between technologies that are robust to catastrophic supply chain disruptions and those that are especially beneficial to the developing world.[2]

Thank you to Chris Bakerlee, Anjali Gopal, Holden Karnofsky, Gregory Lewis, Jassi Pannu, Jonas Sandbrink, Carl Shulman, James Wagstaff, and Claire Zabel for helpful comments.

  1. Here is one heuristic: if asking whether a response intervention X is worthwhile from a purely longtermist perspective, a surprising amount of value can be gleaned just by saying the following sentence: ‘the catastrophe would have led to the permanent and total collapse of civilization, but fortunately because of X, we managed to survive.’ If the sentence sounds ridiculous (e.g. ‘better hospital data management’ or ‘education campaign against anti-vaxxing’), it’s likely the kind of thing that isn’t promising on longtermist grounds. ↩︎

  2. For example, vaccines that don’t require a cold chain. ↩︎


3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:35 PM
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Thanks for this, I think this is a useful intuition to get across and appreciate the "peak defense vs trough defense" handle for the idea.

Medical countermeasures (e.g. vaccines): for prioritizing survival, one might focus on ensuring a countermeasure can be successfully developed at all, rather than ensuring that existing countermeasures can get fast regulatory approval or widespread distribution.

I think the rest of the post touches on this at various points, but to make it explicit in one place, my claim would be that:

To focus on survival, one might focus on ensuring a countermeasure exists and can be produced, stored and administered in ways that are robust to supply chain disruption, lack of specialist medical personnel, and other symptoms of partial or total societal breakdown.

Does that sound right to you?

Thanks! And yes, this seems right to me.