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Envisioning a world immune to global catastrophic biological risks

🌈 Abstract

The article discusses how advances in technology, particularly in DNA/RNA sequencing, physical barriers and sterilization, and robotics, can help contain and mitigate the risks of global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs) such as pandemics and the use of biological weapons. It explores the potential for these technologies to provide an "attainable defense-dominant 'win condition'" against such risks, potentially marking an end to the indefinite risk period for civilization.

🙋 Q&A

[01] Diagnostic technology is advancing towards cheap universal detection of novel pathogens

1. What are the key advancements in DNA/RNA sequencing technology that can help detect novel pathogens?

  • The cost of DNA/RNA sequencing is rapidly declining, which can enable:
    • Widespread surveillance for novel pathogens, even at the individual building or household level (e.g., by sequencing condensation in HVAC systems)
    • Earlier detection of new pathogens through lower concentration sampling
    • Automation to reduce dependency on skilled workers

2. How can sequencing technologies be used for pathogen detection and surveillance?

  • Sequencing can detect any pathogenic DNA or RNA sequence, including previously unseen organisms, through metagenomic analysis of genetic material from mixed communities
  • Sequencing has already been used to monitor sewage systems for antimicrobial resistance genes and detect poliovirus, enabling the creation of global sewage surveillance systems

3. What are the potential limitations that still need to be addressed for widespread pathogen surveillance?

  • Efficient sample acquisition and preparation, especially automation to eliminate dependency on skilled workers
  • Public health institutions need to respond and investigate any new organisms identified through surveillance

[02] Blanket coverage of flexible or universal tests can affordably crush human-to-human transmission if adequate capacity is maintained

1. How can widespread testing and isolation help contain the spread of a pandemic?

  • Strict isolation of infected people and their contacts can significantly reduce the effective reproduction number of a pathogen, as demonstrated in the Italian town of Vò
  • For a highly damaging GCBR pathogen, the cost-benefit analysis would justify spending a large proportion of global economic output on testing and isolation measures

2. What factors have hindered the implementation of effective testing and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic?

  • Substantial asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission has made it difficult to identify and isolate all infected individuals
  • Implementation and compliance with testing and isolation measures have varied greatly depending on government policies and other factors

3. What is the potential for widespread sequencing capacity to enable continuous surveillance and early detection of new pathogens?

  • Extrapolating the decline in sequencing costs suggests that many nations and the world overall could have the necessary sequencing capacity for ubiquitous surveillance by 2050
  • This could provide quick warning of the spread of new organisms, allowing for close inspection of their pathogenicity

[03] Could rich countries live at safety standards inspired by BSL-4?

1. What are the key features and costs of BSL-4 safety standards?

  • BSL-4 is the highest biosafety level, with workers wearing positive pressure suits and extensive sterilization and filtration systems to prevent pathogen escape
  • The cost of producing BSL-4 facilities is currently high, in the range of $700-$1,200 per square foot, but could be reduced through economies of scale and standardization

2. How feasible would it be for rich countries to adopt BSL-4-like safety standards for broader living and working spaces?

  • With sufficient wealth and technological advancement (e.g., through advanced AI and robotics), it may be possible for some rich countries to adopt BSL-4-like safety standards for a significant portion of their built environment
  • However, this would require a WWII-level mobilization and would likely only be implemented in a limited number of facilities in advance of a catastrophe

3. What factors could make the cost-benefit of widespread BSL-4-like protections more favorable?

  • Greatly increased wealth and technological progress, which could make atmospheric separation of buildings and AI/robotic telepresence more feasible
  • Increased perception of GCBR risks, leading to more investment in robust countermeasures

[04] Low dual use risk

1. What is the concern with dual-use research in biosecurity?

  • Advances in biotechnology can increase capabilities for both defense and offense, potentially increasing net risk in the interim before the defender's advantage becomes overwhelming

2. How do advances in sequencing and protective equipment compare in terms of dual-use risk?

  • Sequencing technology would likely already be fairly abundant for illegal bioweapons programs, so its dual-use risk may be relatively low
  • Improved protective equipment and facilities could potentially reduce the disincentive to bioweapons research from accidental release, but this risk may be outweighed by the direct benefits

3. Why are the approaches discussed in the article relatively low in dual-use risk compared to other biosecurity measures?

  • They do not require detailed understanding of all possible pathogenic attacks, which could generate information about those attacks as well as any for which defense fails.

[05] Biorisk and the 'time of perils'

1. How does the concept of a 'time of perils' affect the long-term outlook for civilization's survival?

  • If there is a fixed risk of a GCBR each year, it would set a relatively short civilizational life expectancy in the thousands of years
  • However, if the risk level eventually declines to near-zero, the life expectancy of civilization could be trillions of years

2. How do the technologies discussed in the article suggest a potential 'win condition' for GCBRs?

  • Universal detection technologies and physical barriers/sterilization suggest an attainable "defense-dominant 'win condition'" where the risk of GCBRs can be reduced to near-zero

3. What factors could influence the duration of the 'time of perils' for biological risks?

  • The speed of improvement and deployment of robust countermeasures relative to the increase in biothreats
  • The low observed rates of WMD use between states and the barriers to terrorists using cutting-edge WMDs
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