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This profile is tailored towards students studying biological sciences, health sciences and engineering, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.
Why is this a pressing problem?
Pandemic outbreaks have caused enormous loss of life. Global excess mortality due to COVID-19 was at least 17 million in 2020 and 2021, with more deaths continuing to this day. The 1918 influenza pandemic killed between 1% and 5.4% of the global population. Smaller influenza pandemics such as those in 1957 and 1968 killed 1-4 million people worldwide, and demonstrate that the emergence of new respiratory viruses is a routine event. Pandemics also harm the quality of people’s lives; for example, the COVID-19 global recession is the deepest since the end of WWII according to the Brookings Institute. The Institute for Progress has estimated that COVID-19 cost the USA between 7 and 16 trillion dollars worth of health and economic damage, over and above the value of lives lost.
We need technological improvements and improvements to governance and implementation to better respond to pandemics and other biological threats. Natural pandemics more severe than COVID-19, or anthropogenic pandemics caused by engineered pathogens, could cause huge disruption to global civilisation and humanity’s future, possibly even the collapse of critical infrastructure and global civilization.
Working on preventing these scenarios and mitigating them if they come to happen might, therefore, be very valuable. There are various interventions that can reduce the risk of a dangerous pathogen emerging, such as improving safety in laboratories working with dangerous pathogens and improving environmental surveillance to detect dangerous pathogens.
However, once a pathogen is beginning to spread, non-pharmaceutical interventions such as distancing and PPE are likely to be the first line of defense, before medical interventions can be deployed. Non-pharmaceutical interventions also have the advantage of having less dual-use potential than medical interventions, meaning it seems unlikely that advances made in this area of research could be used to do harm. This profile explores how behaviour change, changes to indoor environments and various non-medical technologies can control the spread of infectious disease.
Explore existing research
- Boyer, Christopher B., et al. (2022) Infectious Disease Dynamics and Restrictions on Social Gathering Size, Epidemics
- Bradshaw, William, et al. (2020) Bidirectional Contact Tracing Dramatically Improves COVID-19 Control
- Nardell, Edward A. (2021) Air Disinfection for Airborne Infection Control with a Focus on COVID‐19: Why Germicidal UV is Essential, Photochemistry and Photobiology
- Shen, Jialei, et al. (2021) A Systematic Approach to Estimating the Effectiveness of Multi-Scale IAQ Strategies for Reducing the Risk of Airborne Infection of SARS-CoV-2, Building and Environment
- The Apollo Program for Biodefense: Winning the Race Against Biological Threats (2021), Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense
Find a thesis topic
If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas that could be particularly valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!
For more questions, you could look at this list of biosecurity project ideas.
One possible area for further research is suggested in Air safety to combat global catastrophic biorisks:
- ‘Low-wavelength safety testing: Low-wavelength light is a potentially transformative intervention, and studies to develop a safety record sufficient for wide use in humans should be a high priority. Studies have already been successfully conducted on realistic 3D skin models, with intense monitoring for damage, and some longer-term studies on mice made deliberately susceptible to tumors. Interventions of a similar risk have been proposed based on the evidence of models. In-human longer-term studies could be feasible on a dedicated population (possibly an office block), with monitoring for early signs of damage, combined with an early efficacy study.’
Research into improving technologies and equipment to control outbreaks of infectious diseases could be very valuable. The recommendations below are from this report and this post.
A high priority is the development of better personal protective equipment. PPE has changed little over the past several decades. Masks often lack reusability and fit poorly, and PPE that is extremely effective is often bulky, restrictive and in insufficient supply. The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense recommends research on improving and developing PPE which:
- is reusable, sterilizable, or self-disinfecting.
- allows personalisation to improve fit and comfort.
- can be rapidly produced from widely available materials.
- neutralises pathogens.
- detects potential exposures to pathogens.
Engineering expertise is also needed to improve current means of suppressing pathogen transmission in the environment and to identify new methods. Further research could involve innovation in ‘affordable air filtration and sterilisation systems, deliberate design of airflows, self-sterilising surfaces, easily sterilised materials…[and] robotic and autonomous integrated sterilisation.’ Far-UVC irradiation and upper-room UVGI are some of the interventions that could be further developed.
PPE has several key advantages, as well – it’s ‘pathogen-agnostic,’ meaning that it can protect against pathogens without us needing to know what those pathogens are, and should be able to protect against viruses that have been deliberately engineered to outsmart medical interventions.
Generally, improving our understanding of how transmission occurs and how it can be stopped would be very helpful. This might consist of estimating the effects of various interventions, including social distancing measures (like the closure of schools, non-essential shops, isolation), testing, wide-scale use of personal protective equipment and contact tracing.
Testing the effectiveness of various items of personal protective equipment (PPE), especially those that could be easily scalable (like home-made cloth masks), and understanding how PPE could be improved would be also very valuable. Surprisingly little research into this existed prior to COVID (e.g. this was the only study on home-made face masks effectiveness and became very influential; another example could be this finding that if you dry heat a N95 mask at 70 ℃ for 30 minutes, it becomes usable again with little damage to filtering mechanism).
Yet another path could be improving diagnostics protocols. It seems that protocols in many countries favour testing people who are most likely to have the disease (e.g. they have the most severe symptoms, or have arrived from a location where disease already appeared). However, in a situation when the number of tests is limited (which is quite usual at the beginning of the pandemic), it might be useful to take the Bayesian approach and prioritise testing people based on how much the result of the test changes doctor’s decision on what to do with the patient. For example, in case someone shows severe symptoms and arrived from a flagged location, the decision would be to keep them quarantined even if the test is negative. Thus, we might not waste the test on them and rather use it on patients with whom the right decision is less clear. Formalising and elaborating this approach or researching other approaches to improve diagnostics protocols might be very useful for slowing down the spread of another pandemic when it occurs.
To learn more about the general case for working on biosecurity and global catastrophic biological risks, see:
- Preventing catastrophic pandemics from 80000 Hours
- This podcast from 80000 Hours on why we aren’t worried enough about the next pandemic
- This podcast from 80000 Hours on the twelve best ways to stop the next pandemic
- This talk biosecurity as an EA cause area
You could register interest for BlueDot Impact’s introductory course on the fundamentals of biosecurity. The Global Catastrophic Risk Institute suggests fellowships and other next steps here.
If you’re interested in working on this research direction, apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas.
You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in peer connections with others working in this area.
Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.
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Explore our other profiles relating to biosecurity and pandemic preparedness:
This profile was last updated 5/1/2023. Thanks to Elika Somani for helpful feedback on this profile. All errors remain our own.
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