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This profile is tailored towards students studying business, economics, health sciences, law, media and communications, political science, and sociology; 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. Governments and other key institutions are key to controlling pandemics, but many are still under-prepared – see the Global Health Security (GHS) Index to learn more.
There are many questions research could help explore, such as how to increase the capacity of health systems to respond to pandemic threats, protect critical infrastructure in a pandemic, improve supply chain resilience, amend laws to speed up emergency drug approvals and respond to misinformation. Cost-benefit or cost-effectiveness analyses could also help identify the most promising interventions to prepare countries for responding to future pandemics.
In the talk below, Dr Crystal Watson from the Center for Health Security discusses the work the center has been doing to prevent and prepare for pandemics.
Explore existing research
- Monrad et al., Promoting versatile vaccine development for emerging pandemics
- Millett, P., and Rutten, P., COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, and Export Controls
This biosecurity and biorisk reading list links to additional papers that may be useful.
- John Hopkins Center for Health Security: A research center focused on global health security and biosecurity.
- The Simon Institute for Longterm Governance: An institute that conducts research and policy analysis on long-term governance issues.
- The Centre for Long-term Resilience: A think tank that conducts policy work to increase humanity’s long-term resilience to extreme risks.
- Institute for Progress: An organisation dedicated to accelerating scientific, industrial and technological progress and working to safeguard the future.
- NTI | Bio: A program within the Nuclear Threat Initiative that works to reduce the risk of biological threats and attacks.
Find a thesis topic
If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!
Many important facts about how to manage and protect critical infrastructure in a pandemic are best researched by people with a business or operations background. For example, it would be useful to have an estimate of how many people would be required to keep the essential public services (like electricity, water and hospitals, etc..) running in the event of very severe pandemics requiring strict lockdowns and isolation of as many people as possible. It would also be valuable to research factors that are likely to prevent critical businesses from operating at full capacity, so we can make good plans to keep them running (see this example of a business doing this in advance of COVID-19).
The major supply chain disruptions experienced during COVID could be worse in a future pandemic. Research on supply chain resilience and how to better predict changes in demand would help prevent these disruptions, and it is likely to be profitable for businesses that have this knowledge.
Additionally, research on how people respond to messages from their employers, or from businesses in general, might show how business can contribute to good governance and response while building goodwill.
Applying cost-benefit or cost-effectiveness analysis to proposed pandemic governance plans and policies will improve their quality.
More research in the field of health economics is needed to understand how different features of health care systems affect their ability to respond to pandemics. For example, there may be an efficiency-robustness tradeoff where certain cost-saving measures significantly harm the ability to provide care during a pandemic.
Research into game theory and political economy will help improve the probability that laws, policies, and other governance responses will have their intended effect and not cause unintended consequences that harm public health or the economy.
The macroeconomic effects of pandemics are significant, and knowledge of how to mitigate them is key to pandemic resilience. Research into how various responses to pandemics affect government budget constraints and inflation would be valuable in allowing governments to properly calibrate things like social insurance and stimulus plans.
Research into mechanism design and market structure can allow sustainable, targeted interventions. For example, if well-researched and well-designed, a mandate that critical infrastructure operations purchase pandemic and/or business continuity insurance would be valuable. This would give them the cash flow to react to a disaster, and if the premiums were based on their operational risk, it would give them an incentive to make cost-effective preparations to lower that risk.
Finally, it could be useful to do research into advanced market commitments and other innovative finance tools that could be developed to incentivise the production of vaccines and therapeutics in the event of a pandemic. See this introduction from the World Economic Forum to learn more.
Research is needed to understand how to build health systems that best prepare for and respond to pandemic threats, how to best support pandemic-preparedness infrastructure and capacity building, and how best to run education efforts (such as field epidemiology training programmes).
International laws, such as the International Health Regulations, are key to international pandemic governance. Legal research on how to improve or expand such laws would be helpful.
Sometimes, effective pandemic interventions require civil liberties to be curtailed. Legal work on developing a legal framework for how to allow the proper use of emergency powers, while reducing the chances of them being misused by authoritarian governments, would be very valuable.
Many aspects of pandemic response are highly dependent on country-specific laws, such as those governing the operations of the FDA. Legal research on how best to amend these laws to e.g. allow a scientifically rigorous and non-politicized way to speed up drug approvals in an emergency, would be valuable.
A properly designed enabling legislation might allow public health funding to be continually allocated to pandemic prevention, in a way that does not allow the money to be wasted or diverted to other uses, when politicians are neglecting the problem or have other priorities.
Good public messaging is crucial for governments and other civil society actors trying to respond to pandemics, and also to communicate the need to invest in prevention and set plans in motion before a pandemic happens.
Misinformation and disinformation are likely to hamper future pandemic governance, and research on how best to respond would be helpful.
While risk communication is a relatively well-developed field (see the work of Paul Slovic for some of the key papers in this field), it can always benefit from research to see how the ever-changing media environment affects best practices. It would also benefit from research into how people perceive risk and related messages in the middle of a novel pandemic, rather than a more localized or personal event.
Ideally key decision-makers throughout politics and civil society would participate in emergency response exercises, both within and between countries, to ensure a more effective global response in the event of another pandemic. Improving our understanding of multiple scenarios of how a potential pandemic might unfold could make it easier for decision-makers to practice responding in advance and implement the best policies under pressure.
Another path could be researching how to change the mindset in countries around the world to incentivise greater transparency and data sharing about infectious outbreaks. Good governance during pandemics requires coordinated responses between countries, but there are many incentives pushing countries in the direction of being secretive about their data. This prevents other countries effectively preparing or collaborating on stopping pandemics in the first place.
It could also be useful to explore what led to differences in the effectiveness of vaccine development in different countries during COVID-19. For example, the UK and USA seem to have been more adaptable than Europe, and it would be valuable to understand what lessons we could learn from this.
Additionally, there has historically been a ‘cycle of panic and neglect’ in which governments consistently fail to invest in preventative measures after the immediate threat is over. Researching this dynamic in order to find ways to prevent it in the future would be very valuable.
We need a better understanding of how people’s cultural and socioeconomic situation causes them to respond to a pandemic. Laws and policies that are appropriate for one culture may not be appropriate for another.
Understanding the social drivers of compliance with public health directives is critical for predicting how a pandemic will spread.
The anthropology and sociology of the public health community itself is under-studied. What kinds of people work in public health, what are their cultural assumptions, and how does this affect their ability to respond to pandemics?
To learn more about the general case for working on biosecurity and global catastrophic biological risks, see:
- Preventing catastrophic pandemics from 80000 Hours
- Dr Cassidy Nelson on the twelve best ways to stop the next pandemic (and limit COVID-19)
- This talk on Biosecurity as an EA cause area
Podcasts relevant to this research direction include:
The careers and policies that can prevent global catastrophic biological risks, according to world-leading health security expert Dr Inglesby – 80,000 Hours
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.
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 meeting other students working on this research direction.
Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas.
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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This profile was last updated 7/01/2023. Thanks to Richard Bruns for helping to write this profile and Jacob Arbeid, David Manheim, Elika Somani and Dewi Erwan for helpful feedback. All errors remain our own.
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