Global catastrophic biological risk

A global catastrophic biological risk (GCBR) is a global catastrophic risk that is biological in nature.[1][2]

Existential risks from biotechnology

Biotechnology offers potentially exciting ways to make people much better off, to find new ways to tackle disease, and to address climate change. However, because many biological systems are at least in principle self-replicating, significant modifications of some kinds could also pose serious risks.

A life-sciences area which currently receives attention from risk experts is gain-of-function (GOF) research, in which particularly concerning pathogens like H5N1 influenza are modified to increase their virulence or transmissibility. Researchers are divided as to whether the benefits of such experiments are worth the risks that come from either accidental release of pathogens or the misuse of discoveries by malicious actors.[3][4] In the near term, such pathogens probably pose a non-existential global catastrophic risk, but there is some chance that related life-sciences work might one day pose an existential risk.


80,000 Hours rates reducing global catastrophic biological risks a "highest priority area": a problem at the top of their ranking of global issues assessed by importance, tractability and neglectedness.[5]


In The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, Toby Ord offers several policy and research recommendations for handling risks from engineered pandemics:[6]

  • Bring the Biological Weapons Convention into line with the Chemical Weapons Convention: taking its budget from $1.4 million up to $80 million, increasing its staff commensurately, and granting the power to investigate suspected breaches.
  • Strengthen the WHO’s ability to respond to emerging pandemics through rapid disease surveillance, diagnosis and control. This involves increasing its funding and powers, as well as R&D on the requisite technologies.
  • Ensure that all DNA synthesis is screened for dangerous pathogens. If full coverage can’t be achieved through self-regulation by synthesis companies, then some form of international regulation will be needed.
  • Increase transparency around accidents in BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories.
  • Develop standards for dealing with information hazards, and incorporate these into existing review processes.
  • Run scenario-planning exercises for severe engineered pandemics.

Further reading

Esvelt, Kevin (2020) Mitigating catastrophic biorisks, Effective Altruism Forum, September 3.

Inglesby, Thomas V. & Amesh A. Adalja (eds.) (2019) Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Lempel, Howie & Keiran Harris (2020) Dr Greg Lewis on Covid-19 and reducing global catastrophic biological risks, 80,000 Hours, April 17.

Lewis, Gregory (2020) Reducing global catastrophic biological risks, 80,000 Hours, March 9.

Kilbourne, Edwin Dennis (2008) Plagues and pandemics: past, present, and future, in Nick Bostrom & Milan M. Ćirković (eds.) Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 287–307.

Millett, Piers & Andrew Snyder-Beattie (2017) Existential risk and cost-effective biosecurity, Health Security, vol. 15, pp. 373–383.

Nouri, Ali & Christopher F. Chyba (2008) Biotechnology and biosecurity, in Nick Bostrom & Milan M. Ćirković (eds.) Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 450–480.

Shulman, Carl (2020) What do historical statistics teach us about the accidental release of pandemic bioweapons?, Reflective Disequilibrium, October 15.

Shulman, Carl (2020) Envisioning a world immune to global catastrophic biological risks, Reflective Disequilibrium, October 15.

Wiblin, Robert & Keiran Harris (2018) The careers and policies that can prevent global catastrophic biological risks, according to world-leading health security expert Dr Inglesby, 80,000 Hours, April 18.

Yassif, Jaime (2017) Reducing global catastrophic biological risks, Health Security, vol. 15, pp. 329–330.

biosecurity | biosurveillance | existential risk | global catastrophic risk | Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security | Nucleic Acid Observatory | Nuclear Threat Initiative

  1. ^

    Lewis, Gregory (2020) Reducing global catastrophic biological risks, 80,000 Hours, March 9.

  2. ^

    Schoch-Spana, Monica et al. (2017) Global catastrophic biological risks: toward a working definition, Health Security, vol. 15, pp. 323–328.

  3. ^

    Duprex, W. Paul et al. (2015) Gain-of-function experiments: Time for a real debate, Nature Reviews Microbiology, vol. 13, pp. 58–64.

  4. ^

    Selgelid, Michael J. (2016) Gain-of-Function research: Ethical analysis, Science and Engineering Ethics, vol. 22, pp. 923–964.

  5. ^
  6. ^

    Ord, Toby (2020) The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, p. 279–280.