This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.
In a nutshell
What is the problem?
Natural pandemics, bioterrorism, biological weapons, and dual use scientific research have the potential to cause significant, and perhaps unprecedented, harm. The risks from engineered threats are likely to grow in the future.
Who is already working on it?
The U.S. federal government spent nearly $6 billion on various aspects of biosecurity in 2012. Philanthropic involvement in this area is quite limited.
What could a new philanthropist do?
Given the security aspect and large government involvement on biosecurity issues, a philanthropist would likely focus on advocacy in some form. Potential goals may be to improve disease surveillance, oversight of dual use research, or support for research and development on novel therapies, amongst others.
1. What is the problem?
Biosecurity covers a wide range of risks, including:1
- Natural pandemics.
- Bioterrorism and the intentional deployment of biological weapons.
- Dual use research and the possibility of accidental deployment of biological agents.
We see biosecurity issues as separate from typical global health issues in that they represent relatively low-probability risks of bad outcomes with potentially global impacts, rather than ongoing health issues to be managed at the local or regional level.
We are not aware of any systematic estimates of the magnitudes of the risks discussed below. Our guess is that natural pandemics likely present the largest current threat, but that the development of novel biotechnology could lead to greater risks over the medium or long term.
1.1 Natural pandemics
Natural flu pandemics occur relatively frequently, and may be the most serious biosecurity threat, though exact probabilities are difficult to estimate.2
The worst flu pandemic in the past century was the “Spanish” flu epidemic of 1918, which is believed to have been responsible for about 50 million deaths.3 Due to globalization, a similar pandemic today would likely spread around the world much more quickly, though modern medical advances would also likely reduce the health impacts of such a pandemic.4
The H5N1 (avian flu) virus could be significantly more harmful than the 1918 flu pandemic were it to become more transmissible between humans, which could happen with relatively few genetic changes.5
1.2 Bioterrorism and biological weapons
The probability of a terrorist attack using a biological weapon is extremely difficult to estimate.6
A terrorist attack with biological weapons could take a variety of forms:
- A noncontagious biological agent, such as anthrax.7
- A contagious natural pathogen, such as smallpox, which has been eradicated and accordingly is no longer vaccinated against.8
- A contagious engineered pathogen, such as a manipulated version of H5N1 that is more transmissible between humans.9 (This type of risk is discussed more fully below.)
The magnitude of harms caused by potential bioterror attacks could vary widely based on the agents employed as well as a number of other factors, but may be less significant than a major flu pandemic.10
1.3 Dual use research
“Dual use” research describes research that could be used either for positive or negative ends: scientists doing legitimate research may accidentally release a harmful agent or create tools or techniques that allow malicious actors to do so with greater ease.11 For instance, there has been significant controversy recently over research aiming to alter the host range of the H5N1 flu virus to make it transmissible between ferrets, a model for humans.12
We have not seen any systematic assessments of the risks of dual use research or the likely impacts of an engineered pathogen. We would expect that as technology is developed further, these risks will increase and that the level of training required to use widely available technology to produce dangerous pathogens will fall, making dual use research and synthetic biology a significantly larger source of risk in the future.
While the expected harms of different kinds of biosecurity risks are extremely difficult to estimate and compare, dual use research carries at least the conceptual possibility of creating a pathogen significantly more harmful than anything that has naturally evolved.13
2. Who is already working on it?
The U.S. government plays a significant role in supporting a variety of biosecurity activities, including:14
- Surveillance of emerging biosecurity threats
- Intelligence efforts to prevent bioterrorism
- Research and development on novel therapeutics
- Stockpiling important medical supplies
Researchers at the UPMC Center for Health Security estimate that U.S. federal government funding for civilian biosecurity efforts in 2012 was about $5.6 billion, though less than 10% of that was directed to programs that exclusively focus on biosecurity (as opposed to programs that include both biosecurity and other goals, such as scientific research or general disaster preparedness).15 About $1.3 billion of that total goes to each of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, primarily for preparedness and research, respectively.16
Foundation funding for work related to biosecurity is substantially more limited. Between 2000 and 2010, the Sloan Foundation spent $44 million on a biosecurity program, which has since ended.17 The Carnegie Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation have also supported work on biosecurity issues in the past.18
The only philanthropic funder that we know of with a program dedicated to biosecurity issues is the Skoll Global Threats Fund, though our understanding is that the Gates Foundation has also supported relevant work.19 Based on the grants listed in their IRS Form 990, it appears that the Skoll Global Threats Fund spent about $1.5 million on biosecurity issues in 2011; we don’t have more recent figures.20 The Skoll Global Threats Fund has co-funded a project led by the Nuclear Threat Initiative to improve regional disease surveillance networks with the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation (the latter of which had a $21 million program to support disease surveillance networks from 2008 to 2011).21
3. What could a new philanthropist do?
We do not feel that we have a strong sense of the interventions available to a new philanthropist in this field, but we expect that most work would take the form of research and advocacy.
Some areas for philanthropic investment might include:
- Advocating to policymakers to improve biosecurity initiatives
- Supporting general research on the magnitude of biosecurity risks and opportunities to reduce them
- Improving and connecting disease surveillance systems so that novel threats can be detected and responded to more quickly22
- Reducing the risks of dual use research by promoting stronger oversight mechanisms and cultural norms of caution amongst researchers23
- Developing novel therapies, such as broad-spectrum flu vaccines24
- Improving the capacity for rapid production of vaccines in response to emerging threats25
- Creating or growing stockpiles of important medical countermeasures26
- Improving preparedness of public health and law enforcement institutions27
A 2011 report by the Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center graded U.S. preparedness for a biological “Global Crisis” scenario as an “F” on five out of seven criteria, so we consider it likely that further research could identify other opportunities for philanthropic improvement, especially since we would expect the U.S. to be better-prepared than other countries.28
4. Questions for further investigation
Our research in this area has been relatively limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation.
Amongst other topics, further research on this cause might address:
- The degree to which biosecurity threats currently constitute a global catastrophic risk, and the extent to which they are likely to evolve into such a risk. More generally, we could benefit from learning more about the level of risk and the expected harms from different biosecurity threats.
- The gaps in current philanthropic and government efforts to confront biosecurity issues. Some sources argue that there are large shortcomings in preparedness, but we do not feel that we have an adequate understanding of what should be done to resolve these deficits.
- The opportunities for philanthropic investment in the realm of biosecurity that might carry the largest benefits. Given the large absolute level of U.S. government support, we suspect that some form of advocacy may carry the highest returns.
5. Our process
We initially decided to investigate biosecurity issues because they may be a global catastrophic risk (i.e. the potential devastation from biosecurity threats could be so large that investments to prevent such threats from being realized could carry large returns). Our investigation to date has been rather cursory, mainly consisting of conversations with four individuals with knowledge of the field:
- Jennifer Olsen, Manager, Pandemics, Skoll Global Threats Fund
- Paula Olsiewski, Program Director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
- Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), University of Minnesota
- Tom Inglesby, M.D., Chief Executive Officer and Director, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Center for Health Security
In addition to these conversations, we also reviewed documents that were shared with us.
|CORDS Launch||Source (archive)|
|Kimball et al. 2011||Source (archive)|
|Myhrvold 2013||Source (archive)|
|Notes from a conversation with Jennifer Olsen on September 23, 2013||Source|
|Notes from a conversation with Michael Osterholm on July 30, 2013||Source|
|Notes from a conversation with Paula Olsiewski on July 19, 2013||Source|
|Notes from a conversation with Tom Inglesby on October 2, 2013||Source|
|Sell and Watson 2013||Source (archive)|
|Skoll Global Threats Fund 990-PF 2011||Source (archive)|
|Taubenberger and Morens 2006||Source (archive)|
|The Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center 2011||Source (archive)|