A Biosecurity and Biorisk Reading+ List

Here are some readings (+courses, videos, and podcasts) to help you get oriented in biosecurity and biorisk reduction.

My favourite items are bolded. Resources I have not directly vetted, but which have been recommended strongly by others, are marked with a *.

This list is a bit biased towards US researchers and organizations, in part because many of the readings were done in 2018-2019 with the East Bay Biosecurity Group, which is based in Berkeley, California. If you think I’ve missed something particularly valuable, please send it along!

Last Updated: March 16, 2021


Meta

If you’re just starting to learn about biosecurity, I especially recommend the 80,000 Hours problem profile, the Next Generation Biosecurity course, and the reports I’ve listed under “Global Catastrophic Biological Risks” below: Technologies to Address GBCRs for a broad range of technical opportunities, The Apollo Program for technology to fund now to prevent the next pandemic, and Preventing GCBRs for several exciting policy opportunities.

After that, well, I’m biased towards suggesting you start a reading group and work through whichever resources catch your interest, since that worked well for me. If you’re feeling unsure what to read next from this rather long list, please feel free to ask for suggestions in the comments!

I am not the first effective altruist type to put a biosecurity reading list on the internet. Here are some others lists I know of, with some notes about where they differ from this one:

  • If you just want introductory materials, the EA Resource Hub’s Biorisk Reading List should serve you well; this list contains the same readings and podcasts, as well as more in-depth ones.

  • I have included every resource highly recommended by Gregory Lewis’s “ultra-rough” Global Catastrophic Biological Risks Reading List, even if I haven’t read it, and our lists naturally had some overlap. That document also includes a good quick writeup of prerequisite basic science knowledge you need to get oriented in biorisk reduction.

  • The Future of Life Institute’s 2018 post on the Benefits and Risks of Biotechnology includes a forest of links, including videos and popular press articles that focus on the benefits of biotechnology (something outside the scope of this syllabus) and a long list of organizations involved in the field.

  • Jamie Withorne maintains a Learn WMDs Spreadsheet. It’s focused on nuclear risks, but contains a wide variety of resources; a glossary and reading list, but also listservs /​ grad programs /​ networks, some related to bioweapons.

A Note on COVID-19

Many of these resources are about pandemics, but few are specific to COVID-19. This is because I wrote the first draft of this post in February 2021; the pandemic is still ongoing, and I am following it largely as news, not science. Most of my favourite readings on COVID-19 have been journalistic; things like Ed Yong on How The Pandemic Will End, Tomas Pueyo’s influential Medium posts, Derek Lowe on vaccine manufacturing, and Zeynep Tufecki on epistemic humility. That said, with a few notable exceptions (e.g. travel bans are useful despite going against the International Health Regulations, vaccines were produced way faster than I expected) I feel like the generalist biosecurity reading I did in back in 2018 and 2019 ended up being pretty relevant to this unfolding pandemic.


Online Courses

  • Next Generation Biosecurity: Responding to 21st Century Biorisks (Useful broad six-week introduction to biosecurity issues, including lots of case studies. Put together by experts at the University of Bath, including the folks behind biosecu.re.)

  • Act Like A Pro! (Set of three interactive biosecurity case studies set in Argentina, Uganda, and the UK. Developed as part of the 2018 Next Generation for Biosecurity competition, which is a project of NTI | bio and the Next Generation GHS Network.)

  • Malice Analysis (Half-day workshop put on by the Engineering Biology Research Consortium to help life sciences graduate students and biotechnology professionals assess risks in their own work. Sign up for the EBRC mailing list to get informed next time they’re running.)

Readings

These are arranged to be helpful to someone organising a biosecurity reading group. For monthly meetings, I would recommend doing a set of short readings on a topic, a single report, or a section of a book. At a weekly cadence, I would recommend discussing a single paper or a few chapters of a longer report. My opinions on how to run high-energy reading groups can be found in this EA forum post.

Papers and other short readings

Cause Reports from Effective Altruist Organizations

Global Catastrophic Biological Risks

(These are all drawn from the 2017 special issue of Health Security on GCBRs.)

Bioweapons

Vaccine Development

Risks from Gain-of-Function Research

Governance and Policy

Information Hazards and Publication Norms

Dual-Use Case Study: de novo horsepox synthesis

This case study was unfolding while the East Bay Biosecurity reading group was meeting; it’s probably not as important as the 2011 dual-use controversy around H5N1 gain-of-function experiments, but I don’t have a reading list handy for those.

Skeptical Takes on Biorisks

Sequence Screening and Attribution

Advances in Bioengineering

Reports

These all have the sort of page count that justifies an executive summary. A reading group may want to cover just the executive summary and a few sections of particular interest.

Global Catastrophic Biological Risks

Biodefense and Bioweapons

Dual-Use and Emerging Technology

Other

Books

I admit I have not read most of these; many are on my to-read-soon list, okay?

Talks, Podcasts, and Videos

80,000 Hours Podcast

Full transcript available for all of these.

Future of Life Institute Podcast

Full transcript available for all of these.

Pandemic Tabletop Exercises

I recommend watching these at 1.5x speed; they’re not as well-organized as a talk or podcast, but useful for getting a gestalt sense of what experts actually believe about pandemic response.

  • Event 201, October 18, 2019. (Explored incentives for producing vaccine stockpiles, economic effects of trade and travel restrictions, potential ramifications of a pandemic for the global financial system, and mis- and dis-information. Participants included representatives from UPS, Johnson & Johnson, Gates Foundation, NBCUniversal, and others.)

  • Clade X, May 15, 2018. (Explored decisions available to US national security personnel in the event of an emerging engineered pandemic. Participants included a former senator, the president of AAAS, a former CDC director, and others.)

Talks from Effective Altruism Global

Full transcript available for all of these. Inclusive of the biosecurity tag on the EA Global website.

Other Talks /​ Podcasts


Thanks to Aaron Gertler for nudging me to write about reading groups and to Brian Wang and Megan Crawford for co-organizing East Bay Biosecurity’s reading groups in 2018 and 2019.