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Global Catastrophic Biological Risks (GCBRs) like bioterrorism, biological weapons, and pandemics pose a substantial existential threat to humanity. With technological progress, it looks increasingly plausible that it will become easier to manufacture extremely dangerous pathogens (whether deliberately or accidentally). The good news is that we can prepare for the next pandemic, with potential technological solutions that make it easier to prevent and treat infections, and implement policy solutions that ensure countries and institutions respond better to pandemics. However, very little of this work is focused on the worst-case risks, so work to prevent potentially existential pandemics is highly neglected.


The international body responsible for the continued prohibition of bioweapons (the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention) has an annual budget of just £1.1 millon, which is less than the average McDonald’s restaurant

(Toby Ord in The Precipice, 2020)


Biotechnology is being rapidly democratised: the Human Genome Project (1990-2003) cost at least $500 million to complete but genome sequencing can now be done for under $1,000.

(National Human Genome Research Instiute, 2016)


A reasonable forecast that H5N1 causes a pandemic as bad as or worse than COVID-19 beginning in the next year is ~4%, which means the expected cost in terms of potential harms to the U.S. is at least $640 billion.

(Institute for Progress, 2023)


Between 2005 and 2012, there were 1,059 release reports with 3,780 potential worker exposures recorded on the CDC's database on releases of select agents and toxins which have been determined to have the potential to pose a severe threat to both human and animal health, to plant health, or to animal and plant products

(National Research Council, 2015)


According to some accounts, the first record of a biological warfare can be found in an epidemic of tularemia that plagued the Eastern Mediterranean in the 14th century BC.

(Medical Hypotheses, 2007)

Below are links to a number of resources to help you explore biosecurity and learn about how we can contribute to understanding and managing it as a cause area for concern.

Introduction to Biosecurity

Here are some useful introductions to the topic of biosecurity which survey the history and present-day state of biosecurity issues and pandemic preparedness.

General reading:

  • 'Reducing global catastrophic biological risks' — 80,000 Hours' problem profile explaining Global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs) as a cause area and what can be done to manage these risks.

  • 'Biotechnology and biosecurity'​ — reproduced chapter from Global Catastrophic Risks (2008), this text describes biological weapons and treaties in history, biotechnological challenges, and approaches to address these risks. 

  • 'A Biosecurity and Biorisk Reading+ List' — selected readings (including courses, videos, and podcasts) to help you get oriented in biosecurity and biorisk reduction.

  • Malcolm R Dando, Bioterror and Biowarfare: A Beginner's Guide (2006)

  • Global Biodefense — News site on preparedness and countermeasures for health security threats from emerging infectious diseases and pandemics.

Sources of Biorisk

Pathogen infections can threaten human, animal and plant life in many ways. The following sub-headings explore the the probabilities and mechanisms which could lead to a global catastrophe.

Visual Capitalist: "As humans have spread across the world, so have infectious diseases. Even in this modern era, outbreaks are nearly constant, though not every outbreak reaches pandemic level as COVID-19 has."


Natural pandemics

  • 'Ecology of zoonoses: natural and unnatural histories' — research paper concluding that "[m]ore than 60% of human infectious diseases are caused by pathogens shared with wild or domestic animals"; could factory farming and animal agriculture increase the likelihood of a bad, or even catastrophic, pandemic?

Biotechnology, biowarfare and bioterrorism

  • 'Engineering the Apocalypse' — podcast episode about the looming danger of a man-made pandemic caused by an artificially-modified pathogen, the risk of which is argued to be far higher and nearer-term than almost anyone realises (5-minute written summary also available here).

COVID-19 is a dress rehearsal for potentially much worse and more dangerous viruses that will eventually happen in the future.

Rob Reid and Sam Harris, 2021

  • 'The Germy Paradox' — series of blog posts which addresses the question: “If biological weapons are as cheap and deadly as is everyone seems to fear, then where are they?” 

  • 'Point of View: A transatlantic perspective on 20 emerging issues in biological engineering' — horizon scanning article which identified 70 potential issues with bioengineering, and then used an iterative process to prioritise 20 issues considered to be emerging, to have potential global impact, and to be relatively unknown outside the field of biological engineering.

  • 'What is the likelihood that civilizational collapse would directly lead to human extinction (within decades)?' — less directly-related to GCBRs but read the section on a scenario causing 99.99% population loss, infrastructure damage, and climate change (e.g. a global war where biological weapons and nuclear weapons were used).

Mitigation & Governance

The field of biosecurity policy is complicated, sensitive and nuanced, especially due to the confidentiality of information, which makes it more difficult to draw confident conclusions based on the impressions you might get based on publicly available information. This section takes a look at the strategies and approaches being proposed, researched, developed and implemented to mitigate GCBRs.


General risk management

  • 'List of Lists of Concrete Biosecurity Project Ideas' — collection of projects to improve biosecurity infrastructure, including implementation of early detection systems, strengthening of the Biological Weapons Convention, research into pandemic refuge bunkers, development of emergency vaccines and more.

  • 'Five ways to stop a bird->mink->human H5N1 pandemic' — proposed solutions to prevent a bird flu pandemic in humans through the abolition of mink farming, tighter regulation, and cultivation and promotion of faux fur and lab-grown replacements.


Technical progress

Policy and institutional decision-making

Scepticism & Uncertainty

As modelling epidemiology and pathology is a very complex task, it is difficult to predict whether a biorisk threatens humanity on a global catastrophic and existential scale, or will simply fall short of it. In turn, there is disagreement on how to strike a balance in dedicating time, effort and money to prevent both eventualities. In addition, biosecurity is a sensitive cause area due to the risks presented by information hazards.

  • 'Dual-Use and Infectious Disease Research' — journal article on the “dual-use dilemma” (when scientific research or technology has the capacity to help or harm humanity) which also examines ethical issues in attempting to trade off the risks and benefits and discusses governance strategies to ensure best practices in the field.

  • 'The Ethical Issues of Dual-Use and the Life Sciences' — another article on dual-use research with focus on historical examples and recent policy developments (mainly in the U.S.), as well as consideration of the term 'experiments of concern', its limitations and the important variations in the manner this term is conceived across the globe.

  • 'Horsepox synthesis: A case of the unilateralist’s curse?' — framed within the context of the controversial reconstitution of an extinct virus, this post looks at the unilateralist's curse, i.e. the risk that one researcher could incorrectly see horsepox synthesis as good and take action based on that conclusion which is made independently from the scientific community.

Charities & Organisations

There are a number of organisations and groups which research and advocate for improved research efforts, policy coordination and international cooperation on managing biosecurity risks.

Careers & Opportunities

Think that biosecurity is important and something you would be interested in working on? Here you can find out more about how you can pursue a career in the field, or test your potential to have an impact in it.

Introduction to Biosecurity
Souces of Biorisk
Mitigation & Governance
Scepticism & Uncertainty
Charities & Organisations
Careers & Opportunities
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