Andrew Snyder-Beattie and Ethan Alley
This is a list of longtermist biosecurity projects. We think most of them could reduce catastrophic biorisk by more than 1% or so on the current margin (in relative terms). While we are confident there is important work to be done within each of these areas, our confidence in specific pathways varies widely and the particulars of each idea have not been investigated thoroughly.
Still, we see these areas as critical parts of biosecurity infrastructure, and would like to see progress building them out. If you’d like to be kept up to date about opportunities to get involved, please fill out this Google Form.
Early Detection Center
Early detection of a biothreat increases the amount of time we have to respond (e.g. designing tailored countermeasures, using protective equipment, heading to bunkers, etc). The current approach for early warning of novel pathogens is severely lacking—it typically relies on a particularly astute doctor realizing that something is strange combined with negative tests for everything else. Existing systems are also almost exclusively focused on known pathogens, and we could do a lot better using pathogen-agnostic systems that can pick up unknown pathogens.
One concrete goal would be something simple where a small team of people collects samples from volunteer travelers around the world and then does a full metagenomic scan for anything that could be dangerous. Even collecting and analyzing only 100 random samples per day could make a big difference in some scenarios, since that would mean we would still expect to catch things before they infect too large a fraction of the global population. We think that with the right team, this could be done with close-to-existing technology for less than $50 million per year.
There are a handful of bottlenecks and a number of ways to decompose this problem. To get started on subproblems, one of us (Ethan) is working on a list of suggestions, which we will backlink here.
Most personal protective equipment (PPE) is not good enough. Things like masks and suits require training to fit properly, lack reusability, and are generally designed for routine uses rather than for the most extreme events. The small minority of PPE that is designed for extreme use cases (e.g. BSL4 suits or military-grade PPE) is bulky, highly restrictive, and insufficiently abundant—not the kind of thing you could easily put millions of healthcare/pharma/essential workers into if needed. It seems plausible that with good materials science and product design we could come up with next-generation PPE that is simultaneously highly effective in extreme cases, easy to use, reliable over long periods of time, and cheap/abundant.
One concrete commercial goal would be to produce a suit (and accompanying system) that is designed for severely immunocompromised people to lead relatively normal lives, at a cost low enough to convince the US government to acquire 100 million units for the Strategic National Stockpile. Another goal would be for the suit to simultaneously meet military-grade specifications, e.g. protecting against a direct hit of anthrax.
PPE has the advantage of being truly ‘pathogen-agnostic’—we can stockpile it in advance of knowing what the threat is, in contrast to vaccines or many medical countermeasures. It is also ‘defensively stable’ in that physical barriers can’t be easily bypassed using pathogen engineering techniques (whereas many medical countermeasures might be defeated with some creative tinkering). See Carl Shulman’s post here for more on this.
To get started on subproblems within PPE, one of us (Ethan) will publish a PPE deeper dive at some point in the future (backlink forthcoming).
Medical countermeasures (e.g. vaccines, antivirals, monoclonal antibodies) for use against catastrophic biorisks have a number of existing drawbacks. In most cases they are tailored to existing pathogens (e.g. smallpox vaccines) and wouldn’t help against a novel threat. Many countermeasures are also not robust against deliberate engineering (e.g. antibiotics are broad-spectrum but can be overcome).
We think there could eventually be opportunities for radically improved medical countermeasures against GCBR-class threats, either by 1) producing targeted countermeasures against particularly concerning threats (or broad-spectrum countermeasures against a class of threats), or by 2) creating rapid response platforms that are reliable even against deliberate adversaries.
However, we are not yet ready to recommend medical countermeasures as a general focus area for large scale projects, in part because many projects in this space have inadvertent downside risks (for example, platforms that use viral vectors may accelerate viral engineering technology). If you feel excited about working in this area, fill out the Google Form (here) and we might be able to provide you some more tailored advice.
Right now, the biological weapons convention (BWC)—the international treaty that bans biological weapons—is staffed by just four people and lacks any form of verification. We think there is more scope for creative ways of strengthening the treaty (e.g. whistleblowing prizes), or creating new bilateral agreements and avoiding bureaucratic gridlock. Moreover, a team of people scouring open sources (i.e. publication records, job specs, equipment supply chains) could potentially make it difficult for a lab to get away with doing bad research, and thereby strengthen the treaty.
Sterilization techniques that rely on physical principles (e.g. ionizing radiation) or broadly antiseptic properties (e.g., hydrogen peroxide, bleach) rather than molecular details (e.g. gram-negative antibiotics) have the advantage of being broadly applicable, difficult to engineer around, and having little dual-use downside potential.
Existing technologies for physical sterilization (e.g. UV light, materials science for antimicrobial surfaces, etc.) have different limitations in terms of costs, convenience, and practicality, and we think this is an underexplored area for prevention and countermeasure development. We have a lot of remaining uncertainties in this area but think the value of investigating it is high.
Existing bunkers provide a fair amount of protection, but we think there could be room for specially designed refuges that safeguard against catastrophic pandemics (e.g. cycling teams of people in and out with extensive pathogen agnostic testing, adding a ‘civilization-reboot package’, and possibly even having the capability to develop and deploy biological countermeasures from the protected space). This way, some portion of the human population is always effectively in preemptive quarantine.
Another way of framing this: lots of people think we’d substantially reduce biorisk if we had a self-sustaining settlement on Mars (and we basically agree). If that’s the case, it would be a lot cheaper to put the exact same infrastructure on Earth, and it buys almost the same amount of protection.
One next step on this would be to build an org which specializes in the operations, logistics and contractor relationships needed to actually build a refuge with the necessary amenities (based on a shallow investigation, one of us, ASB, ballparked outsourcing at around $100-300M / bunker but did not have logistics expertise or time to dig deeper). We have some more ideas in the works we’ll backlink here later, but please fill out the form if you’re interested in the meantime.
A few things we want to highlight:
- Collectively, these projects can potentially absorb a lot of aligned engineering and executive talent, and a lot of money. Executive talent might be the biggest constraint, as it’s needed for effective deployment of other talent and resources.
- Many of the most promising interventions are not bottlenecked by technical expertise in biology or bioengineering. Technically minded EAs who want to work in bio should consider training in other areas of engineering, and in general look to build generalist engineering and problem-solving skills rather than focusing only on getting biology knowledge.
- These projects have reasonably good feedback loops (at least compared to most longtermist interventions), making this area a promising proving ground for meta-EA interventions, especially around entrepreneurship.
Despite how promising and scalable we think some biosecurity interventions are, we don’t necessarily think that biosecurity should grow to be a substantially larger fraction of longtermist effort than it is currently. From a purely longtermist perspective we think that AI might be between 10-100x more important than biosecurity, even if solving biosecurity might be more tractable than solving AI (possibly by a large factor). Biosecurity is also attractive as a cause area for non-longtermist reasons, given the importance of preventing lesser catastrophes that fall short of truly civilization-ending but are still horrific (e.g., 10-100x COVID)—we thus think it could be even more relatively appealing for those more focused on impacts on the current generation(s).
Again, please fill in this coordination form to stay informed of developments and opportunities.
We thank Chris Bakerlee, Jamie Balsillie, Kevin Esvelt, Kyle Fish, Cate Hall, Holden Karnofsky, Grigory Khimulya, Mike Levine, and Carl Shulman for feedback on this post.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
E.g. if biorisk was 1% in the next century, each of these interventions would cut the absolute risk of catastrophe by at least 0.01% ↩︎
This version of a ‘sentinel system’ is going to be neglected by traditional public health authorities and governments because they won’t be searching for engineered threats designed to elude pathogen-specific detection tools. ↩︎
Another discussion of this idea, a ‘nucleic acid observatory,’ can be found here. ↩︎
One possible downside risk is that adversarial countries might interpret such a huge bulk purchase of PPE as being evidence or preparation for strategic biological warfare, leading to an arms race dynamic. The company should therefore be cautious about how it messages and should also liberally sell this equipment everywhere in the world to signal defensive intent. ↩︎
Could you feasibly get the same information from airport waste collection? I'm thinking of an airport/travel focused BioBot, but with pathogen agnostic ambitions.
My take is that these projects are not super information hazardy and what could be useful is for a subset of these projects (super PPE/sterilization?/countermeasures?) is a bunch of smart, entrepreneurial people who are reasonably aligned who can spend a few months bashing out ideas in a lab/office space somewhere.
I think that iGem is pretty entrepreneurial, it tends to attract a bunch of smart, motivated people who are psyched about working on synthetic biology (at least in my limited experience). Competitors tend to design projects around tracks and I could imagine $100k could buy influence to set up a track or (launch some other programme) to get ~400 working on these problems for 3 months (6000 competitors/(13 tracks + 'our preventing pandemics' track)). This works out at ~$250 per 3 person-months work which seems pretty reasonable. I could imagine it being an order of magnitude worse but it still seems like a good bet.
I'd expect for something like 80 projects to be investigated and 5 of them to be useful. There seems to be little downside counterfactual harm wise as they would be doing synbio stuff anyway. It's plausible to me that directing them towards biosec pro... (read more)
I'm quite fascinated by this post because I work for a company that spent a chunk of its startup years trying to implement the "Early Detection Center" part using 911 calls and call-related data.
From listening to the early folks, I got the impression that "terrorism! biosurveillance!" made for nice press conferences. But, people are mostly interested only if we help their highly-visible and much more obvious key performance indicators improve (e.g. increasing revenue). Even after getting certified (?) by the US Department of Homeland Security as a syndromi... (read more)
[Epistemic status - I have no idea what I'm talking about.]
Could you set up a futures exchange, with physical-delivery contracts, around various PPE types? From my extremely naive understanding, couldn't this direct more capital available towards PPE production, plus as an ancillary benefit act as an implicit prediction market of pandemic risk?
I haven't thought this all the way through, but the potential to push more capital toward production, transparently allocate supply, and also get a warning signal seems quite appealing on first blush.
Because futures are associated with specific dates, the relative prices of different futures can give you information about when in the future PPE is likely to be scarce or plentiful. In contrast, the valuation of a company just tells you one number that represents the discounted sum of all future profits. Additionally, manufacturers can sell futures to de-risk investment/production plans.
Really happy to see this, this looks great.
This is outside the scope of this document, but I'm a bit curious how useful it would have been to have such a list 3-5 years ago, and why it took so long. Previously I heard something like, "biosecurity is filled with info-hazards, so we can't have many people in it yet."
Anyway, it makes a lot of sense to me that we have pretty safe intervention options after all, and I'm happy to see lists being created and acted upon.
The authors will have a more-informed answer, but my understanding is that part of the answer is "some 'disentanglement' work needed to be done w.r.t. biosecurity for x-risk reduction (as opposed to biosecurity for lower-stakes scenarios)."
I mention this so that I can bemoan the fact that I think we don't have a similar list of large-scale, clearly-net-positive projects for the purpose of AI x-risk reduction, in part because (I think) the AI situation is more confusing and requires more and harder disentanglement work (some notes on this here and here). The Open Phil "worldview investigations" team (among others) is working on such disentanglement research for AI x-risk reduction and I would like to see more people tackle this strategic clarity bottleneck, ideally in close communication with folks who have experience with relatively deep, thorough investigations of this type (a la Bio Anchors and other Open Phil worldview investigation reports) and in close communication with folks who will use greater strategic clarity to take large actions.
I have only been involved in biosecurity for 1.5 years, but the focus on purely defensive projects (sterilization, refuges, some sequencing tech) feels relatively recent. It's a lot less risky to openly talk about those than about technologies like antivirals or vaccines.
I'm happy to see this shift, as concrete lists like this will likely motivate more people to enter the space.
Agreed that it shouldn't grow substantially, but ~doubling the share of highly-engaged EAs working on biosecurity feels reasonable to me.
Why are suits and substances used to sterilize surfaces (e.g., hydrogen peroxide, bleach) mentioned in relation stopping pandemics? Another post by one of the authors (ASB) of the current post mentioned a self-sterilizing suit regarding the same subject.
Suits and surface sterilization seems unnecessary, because that stuff does nothing to stop airborne transmission of viruses, which seems to be the only way that pandemics can ever arise.
Airborne transmission of respiratory viruses
Just want to note that there are, in fact, 2 ongoing pandemics, and the earlier one, AIDS, isn't a respiratory virus. And those two obviously don't comprise an exhaustive list of possible transmission vectors.
The AIDs epidemic is widely considered a pandemic (pandemics are a subset of epidemics). And one of the deadliest pandemics of the 20th century, at that.
In the 19th century, cholera, a faecal-oral pathogen, caused several pandemics, killing very many people. It doesn't do that any more thanks to sanitation in rich countries, but it's certainly not impossible for non-respiratory pathogens to achieve rapid global spread.
Everyone agrees with you that respiratory viruses are the biggest concern, and you've provided some good resources in this thread that I appreciate. But I do think you are being undernuanced and overconfident here.
Yes, respiratory diseases are far and away the most likely causes of GCBRs, but even there there is risk from other types of disease. But we're discussing pandemics, and there you seem a bit misinformed.
First, the WHO has recently classified AIDS as an endemic disease, changing from its earlier classification as a pandemic. (Just like we'll do with COVID-19 in a couple years.) But that didn't make it not a pandemic until that point. And not only has AIDS killed 35m+ people - easily twice the total for COVID-19, but somewhere between 500k-1m more people were killed this year. And absent AI or a biotech solution to AIDS, that is likely to continue for several more decades. Making this even worse, unlike COVID-19, which skews towards killing people in poor health and the elderly, they were almost all people who would otherwise have lived far longer and healthy lives. If AIDS is not they type of thing we want to stop when we say we're hoping to end pandemics, I don't know what is.
Second, in the past, in addition to AIDS being a clear example of a STD pandemic, fecal-oral spread diseases have caused pandemics, as have vector borne diseases. (And not only that, but many weren't viruses - and antibiotic resistance should worry us on that front. And outside of viruses and bacteria, Plasmodium kills millions a year.) So again, the general point was that it's simply not the case that airborne transmission of viruses is the only way for pandemics to arise.
I don't think accusations of off-topic-ness at this point are very helpful.
You have been making strong claims about "pandemics" in general, which others have responded to by pointing out examples of pandemics that don't fit your claims. If by "pandemics" you meant "civilisation-ending pandemics" only, I think it was on you to make that clear.
It wasn't obvious to me, and apparently also not to others, that your statements about "pandemics" were not meant to apply to pandemics in general.
In general, when you realise you have been communicating unclearly, it's a bad idea to blame the people you confused.
In order for us to be safe from future pandemics, it's really important we don't overindex on the pandemics of the past (or the present).
SARS-CoV-2 doesn't really spread through surfaces/fomites much, if at all.
I'm sure the linked post is right to say that this is also true of "several respiratory pathogens".
However I'd be surprised if it were true of all respiratory pathogens, let alone other diseases. Gastric/diarrhoeal diseases such as norovirus, rotavirus, or, indeed, ebola can spread through fomite transmission.
In short, I disagree that airborne transmission of viruses is the only way that pandemics can ever arise.
Until the COVID19 pandemic, nearly everyone thought that most infectious respiratory diseases were transmitted via fomites and droplets, but unfortunately, this was based on shockingly poor evidence and assumptions. The material you've seen is based on this outdated consensus.
As I pointed out before, there are mechanistic reasons to doubt that pandemics can arise from fomite transmission.
However, if I squint hard enough, I can kinda, sorta see how young children in daycare might be infected by sharing toys and sticking their fingers up their noses. But stuff like that isn't going to cause a pandemic.
In fact, the dominant (and most likely only) mode of transmission of rhinovirus is aerosols (at least in adults), not fomites. The same paper claims that fomites were unable to infect adults.
Anything that's capable of causing a civilization-ending pandemic must be able to rapidly replicate in humans and spread via airborne transmission, and the only thing that can do that is viruses (and perhaps virus-lik... (read more)
meta note- its super cool to see all this activity! but the volume is makin me a bit stressed and i probably won't be trying to respond to lots even if i do one sporadically. does not mean i am ignoring you!
These approaches make sense as biosecurity interventions. As a biomedical engineer with biosecurity interests, I have a career interest in these questions. Here are a couple of my questions:
... (read more)
- These options do not involve advances in bioengineering technology, and I'm assuming that this was a key criteria for your selection of these interventions. Is your analysis based on a broad heuristic of being against near-term advances in biotechnology, or if not, is there some detailed technical analysis you're using to distinguish biorisk-increasing from biorisk-decr
Imagine all six of these projects was implemented to a high standard. How robust do you think the world would be to catastrophic biorisk? Ie. how sufficient do you think this list of projects is?
Here's quite a good article calling for the same thing, which also outlines lots of promising avenues for open-source investigation (in addition to the above; trade data, patents, social media, satellite imagery, unusual epidemic reports, and environmental sampling):
Can everyone help verify the bioweapons convention? Perha... (read more)
Thanks, this post seems super useful!
This sounds a bit too fatalistic to me. It does seem basically guaranteed that these authorities and governments will spend less attention and resources on this than longtermists would ideally like. I imagine you're also right that they'll very much neglect this, like building something far short of ... (read more)
Do you mean that these projects would be a promising proving ground for people (esp. entrepreneurial types) who might want to later also do interventions seeking to build/strengthen the EA movement? If so, why?
I would've thought that (a) the biosecurity projects would provide similarly good or better feedback loops for other "objec... (read more)
Regarding "super PPE" - is it worth looking into the wearable air purifiers from Ible (link here)? They use negative ions and claim to reduce the inhalation of "more than 99.7% of coronavirus". They are currently marketed at under 200USD (link here).
Regarding the 'current approach for early warning of novel pathogens is severely lacking..'
My uneducated series of questions and thoughts are (in random order):
... (read more)
- What is the current state of computing for DNA computing. Could sensors be fashioned making use of this development in order to detect and report the so called novel pathogens https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DNA_computing
- Or however bio-sensors are developed today, miniaturizing them and safeguarding/hardening them (variety of ways) and then connecting these sensors to an existing computational archite
My team and I at AmorSui have been working on bettering PPE since 2018. Our team has materials science, product design, and commercialization expertise to execute on the ideas you posted around Super PPE.
Would love to chat more to expand on the projects as we are planning on submitting an application to FTX Future Fund. Feel free to message me on LinkedIn.
Perhaps this is naive, but would not the few, remaining uncontacted peoples provide some degree of resilience to pandemics? That is, unless for some reason during a catastrophic pandemic infected people manage to "break into" their communities? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncontacted_peoples Without having thought deeply about this, perhaps another way to achieve biosecurity would be to support the protection of these communities and especially put in place something that increases the chance of them staying isolated in case of an outbreak (e.g. being able to give them access to test for and treat contaminated water).