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. ↩︎
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. ↩︎