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This profile is tailored towards students studying biological sciences, psychology and law, 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 harm and loss of life. ‘Zoonotic spillover’ – where a disease passes from a non-human animal to a human – is the most common cause of infectious disease outbreaks that could become pandemics. However, the possibility of human activity directly causing a pandemic, whether intentionally or accidentally, is also a serious concern. There have been many cases of dangerous viruses escaping from labs, and the number of laboratories working with pathogens that could cause serious pandemics is quickly increasing.
Outbreaks caused by engineered pathogens are particularly concerning if the pathogens have been altered in ways that make them more deadly, contagious or resistant to existing interventions. These are known as enhanced potential pandemic pathogens (ePPP). This kind of research – which involves scientists developing technologies that could be misused to cause harm, or could cause harm accidentally – is known as dual-use research.
Enhanced potential pandemic pathogens not only pose a risk if an accident results in them escaping the laboratory. As with dual-use research more broadly, the development of enhanced potential pandemic pathogens can also lead to ‘information hazards’ – the existence of information that others could use to do harm. Advances in dual-use technologies are also lowering the cost of, and level of expertise needed, to create dangerous pathogens. The possibility of bad actors deliberately releasing dangerous pathogens in an act of bioterrorism is therefore also becoming a greater concern. For all these reasons, the pool of people who could deliberately or inadvertently release pathogens that could cause the next pandemic is increasing.
Strategies for decreasing the chance of an anthropogenic pandemic occurring include improving laboratory safety procedures to decrease the chance of accidents, improving norms and regulations to decrease the threat posed by dual-use research, and creating safety alternatives to dual-use technologies.
Watch the talk below to see Dr Megan Palmer discuss the importance of improved biosafety and biosecurity.
Explore existing research
- Kemp, Luke, et al. (2021) Emerging Technologies and Dual-Use Concerns: A Horizon Scan for Global Public Health, World Health Organization
- Lentzos, Filippa (2021) Dual-Use Biology: Building Trust and Managing Perceptions of Intent, The Nonproliferation Review
- Miller, Seumas & Michael J. Selgelid (2007) Ethical and Philosophical Consideration of the Dual-Use Dilemma in the Biological Sciences, Science and Engineering Ethics
- Nelson, Cassidy, et al. (2019) UK Government’s Approach to Emerging Infectious Diseases and Bioweapons
- Palmer, Megan & David Relman (2018) Editing Biosecurity: Needs and Strategies for Governing Genome Editing
- Perkins, Dana, et al. (2018) The Culture of Biosafety, Biosecurity, and Responsible Conduct in the Life Sciences: A Comprehensive Literature Review
- Relman, David (2014) Biological Engineering, Risk, and Uncertainty, Hastings Center Report
This biosecurity and biorisk reading list links to additional papers that may be useful.
- Centre for the Study of Existential Risk
- John Hopkins Center for Health Security
- The Bio Policy and Practices Lab at Stanford
- The Secure DNA Project
Many government departments and research agencies also work on biosecurity. In the US, these include the NIH, HHS, FDA, BARDA, DARPA, OSTP Senate Help committee and the CDC. At the international scale these include the WHO, BWC, UN and GOARN.
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!
Research could focus on advancing less risky replacements for dual-use technologies. For example, mRNA vaccines have less potential for misuse than viral vector vaccines.
Research could also improve the forensic capabilities needed for genetic engineering detection (identifying whether pathogens emerged naturally or due to engineering) and genetic engineering attribution (who they were developed by). See the paper The Biosecurity Benefits of Genetic Engineering Attribution to learn more.
You could explore the directions proposed by the Legal Priorities project in their research agenda, some of which are paraphrased below. See the agenda for more questions and references.
- What could be learned from accident reporting in other industries, such as aviation, or high reliability organisations?
- Do existing criminal law provisions penalise the (concrete or abstract) increase of existential accident risks? What other legal mechanisms are conceivable to reduce accident risks, such as deterrence via civil liability?
- Comparative law may offer insights on potential gaps and more effective measures, yet little research exists comparing biosafety governance in different countries, let alone the relative effectiveness of different strategies. What laws and regulations exist in different countries to minimise accident risks? To what extent have they been implemented in practice? How might their effectiveness be measured, and what uncertainties exist in such an analysis? What do they reflect about biosafety norms?
It could be useful to do further research into how compliance with effective biosafety procedures and accident reporting can be increased in laboratories. It could also be useful to explore how the development of emerging technologies can be guided and regulated to reduce the chance of misuse in bioterror or biowarfare. For example, you could explore how to increase researchers’ consideration of dual-use concerns and differential technological progress (i.e. the preferential development of technologies less likely to be used dangerously).
Research could also explore how to encourage a culture of security among people who could create dangerous pathogens independently due to steep technological progress. It could be valuable to explore both how to encourage well-meaning individuals to be more safety conscious and how to decrease the likelihood of malicious actors using these technologies.
The research agenda ‘Psychology for Effectively Improving the Future’ from the Effective Altruism Psychology Lab suggests questions such as ‘How do biological scientists (e.g. working on synthetic biology) think about biological risks, such as accidental release of dangerous viruses? Do they underestimate the risks of accidents? Do they underestimate the extent to which their research could directly or indirectly be used by malevolent actors?’
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:
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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Explore our other profiles relating to biosecurity and pandemic preparedness:
This profile was last updated 9/01/2023. Thanks to Koen Schoenmakers and Elika Somani for helpful feedback. All mistakes remain our own.
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