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
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.
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.)
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
Reducing global catastrophic biological risks, Medium-Depth, 80,000 Hours, March 2020. (A solid starting point for getting oriented in the field.)
Research and Development to Decrease Biosecurity Risks from Viral Pathogens, Medium-Depth, Open Philanthropy Project, April 2018.
Biosecurity, Shallow-Depth, Open Philanthropy Project, January 2014.
Global Catastrophic Biological Risks
(These are all drawn from the 2017 special issue of Health Security on GCBRs.)
Existential Risk and Cost-Effective Biosecurity, Piers Millett & Andrew Snyder-Beattie, Health Security, July 2017.
Global Catastrophic Biological Risks: Toward a Working Definition, Monica Schoch-Spana et al., Health Security, July 2017. (From the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security team; useful to agree on what we even mean by GCBRs!)
Human Agency and Global Catastrophic Biorisks, Piers Millett & Andrew Snyder-Beattie, Health Security, July 2017.
Reducing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, Jamie Yassif, Health Security, July 2017. (A brief summary of how Open Philanthropy was thinking about biorisk reduction at the time.)
Germ Warfare: A Very Graphic History, Max Brooks, Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, April 2019. (Concise graphic novel history of bioweapons; content warning for body horror.)
*A century of biological-weapons programs (1915–2015): reviewing the evidence, W. Seth Carus, The Nonproliferation Review, November 2017.
The Germy Paradox, Georgia Ray, post series on Eukaryote Writes Blog, 2019. (A blog series around the question: “If biological weapons are as cheap and deadly as is everyone seems to fear, then where are they?”)
Promoting versatile vaccine development for emerging pandemics, Joshua Monrad, Jonas Sandbrink and Neil Cherian, npj Vaccines, February 2021.
Biosecurity risks associated with vaccine platform technologies, Jonas Sandbrink and Gregory Koblentz, Vaccine, February 2021. (Nice example of practical dual-use risk assessment.)
Risks from Gain-of-Function Research
“Designer bugs”: how the next pandemic might come from a lab, R. Daniel Bressler and Chris Bakerlee, Vox Future Perfect, December 2018.
What do historical statistics teach us about the accidental release of pandemic bioweapons?, Carl Shulman, Reflective Disequilibrium blog post, October 2020.
How likely is it that biological agents will be used deliberately to cause widespread harm?, Thomas Inglesby and David Relman, EMBO Reports, February 2016. (From when the US government was debating an ongoing gain-of-function moratorium.)
Governance and Policy
COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, and Export Controls, Piers Millett and Paul Rutten, Health Security, August 2020.
Read the text of the UN Biological Weapons Convention and then some recent commentary on it, like: The Biological Weapons Convention protocol should be revisited, Lynn C. Klotz, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 2019. (Maybe also recent CBW Events reports.)
Regulation of Synthetic Biology: Developments Under the Convention on Biological Diversity and Its Protocols, Felicity Keiper and Ana Atanassova, Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, April 2020.
Asilomar 1975: DNA modification secured, Paul Berg, Nature, September 2008. (Not sure this is the best reference, but it’s worth knowing about Asilomar as a case study in high-impact events; we’re still using a version of the 4-tier risk groups they came up with.)
*Executive Summary of Synthetic Genomics: Options for Governance, Gerald L. Epstein, Michele S. Garfinkel, Drew Endy, and Robert M. Friedman, Center for Strategic and International Studies report, October 2007.
Information Hazards and Publication Norms
Information Hazards in Biotechnology, by Gregory Lewis et al. Risk Analysis, November 2018. (Especially recommended for its quick overview of a number of dual-use case studies; you will want to become familiar with all of them!)
For a general introduction to the concept, you could try either the original paper (Information hazards: A typology of potential harms from knowledge, Nick Bostrom, 2009, 34 page PDF) or recent EA forum posts (Information hazards: a very simple typology, Will Bradshaw, July 2020; What are Information Hazards? Michael Aird, February 2020).
Bioinfohazards, Megan Crawford, Finan Adamson and Jeffrey Ladish, EA Forum post, September 2019.
What the AI Community Can Learn From Sneezing Ferrets and a Mutant Virus Debate: Lessons on publication norms for the AI community from biosecurity, Jasmine Wang, Partnership on AI blog post, December 2020. (Part of the Partnership on AI’s Publication Norms work, which has a lot of relevance here.)
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.
Horsepox synthesis: a case of the unilateralist’s curse, Gregory Lewis, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 2018.
A Critical Analysis of the Scientific and Commercial Rationales for the De Novo Synthesis of Horsepox Virus, Gregory Koblentz, mSphere, March 2018. (A fairly harsh point-by-point takedown of reasons for carrying out the horsepox synthesis experiments.)
A Holistic Assessment of the Risks and Benefits of the Synthesis of Horsepox Virus, Diane DiEuliis and Gigi Kwik Gronvall, mSphere, March 2018. (Using the case study as a jumping-off point to walk through a process of assessing risks more broadly.)
Skeptical Takes on Biorisks
Synthetic biology and biosecurity: challenging the “myths”, Catherine Jefferson, Filippa Lentzos and Claire Marris, Frontiers in Public Health, August 2014. (Blog post version also available: The myths (and realities) of synthetic bioweapons.)
The Deadliest Virus, Michael Specter, The New Yorker, March 2012. (An as-it-happened perspective on the H5N1 gain-of-function controversy, including an interview of Ron Fouchier.)
*Anticipating emerging biotechnology threats: A case study of CRISPR, Kathleen M. Vogel and Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Politics and the Life Sciences, October 2018.
Sequence Screening and Attribution
Next Steps for Access to Safe, Secure DNA Synthesis, James Diggans and Emily Leproust, Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, April 2019. (Good summary of issues from the CEO and head of biosecurity at Twist Biosciences, a large commercial provider of synthetic DNA.)
The biosecurity benefits of genetic engineering attribution, Gregory Lewis et al., Nature Communications, December 2020. (Framing one of the problems that altLabs focuses on; the EA forum also has an interesting brief report from a participant in the altLabs contest.)
Inoculating science against potential pandemics and information hazards, Kevin Esvelt, PLoS Pathogens, October 2018.
Advances in Bioengineering
The second decade of synthetic biology: 2010–2020, Fankang Meng and Tom Elis, Nature Communications, October 2020. (Quick summary of synthetic biology progress.)
Synthetic biology 2020–2030: six commercially-available products that are changing our world, Christopher Voigt, Nature Communications, December 2020. (Likely out of date in a few years, but a good quick reference on the current state of commercialized synthetic biology.)
Point of View: Bioengineering horizon scan 2020, Luke Kemp et al, eLife, May 2020. (A follow up to 2017’s A transatlantic perspective on 20 emerging issues in biological engineering; worth scanning the tables in each, since the identified emerging issues differ.)
*Concerning RNA-guided gene drives for the alteration of wild populations, Kevin Esvelt, Andrea Smidler, Flaminia Catteruccia, and George Church, eLife, July 2014.
*Molecular biology at the cutting edge: A review on CRISPR/CAS9 gene editing for undergraduates, Deborah M. Thurtle‐Schmidt and Te‐Wen Lo, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, January 2018.
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
Technologies to Address Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, Crystal Watson et al., Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, October 2018. (Collection of promising applied biosecurity technologies; extremely useful for people who want to reduce biorisks through technical progress, rather than policy changes.)
The Apollo Program for Biodefense – Winning the Race Against Biological Threats, Bipartisan Commission for Biodefense, January 2021. (Another really exciting, if US-centric, list of technical priorities for pandemic preparedness.)
Preventing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks: Lessons and Recommendations from a Tabletop Exercise held at the 2020 Munich Security Conference, Beth Cameron, Jaime Yassif, Jacob Jordan, and Jacob Eckles, Nuclear Threat Initiative, September 2020. (A good complement to the above, as it focuses on policy rather than technical opportunities. See related talk from EA Student Summit.)
Biodefense and Bioweapons
Aum Shinrikyo: Insights into how terrorists develop biological and chemical weapons, Hidemi Yuki et al., Center for a New American Security, July 2011. (Strongly recommend for an inside look at the functioning of a near-omnicidal organization based on interviews with people near the top.)
Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology, US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018. (Develops a framework for assessing biological risks, and provides a relative ranking of synthetic biology–enabled concerns. Read the summary, then read the rest if it was exciting to you.)
*Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism, US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2004. (Recommended by Gregory Lewis as comprehensive and valuable for US context, despite being a bit dated.)
Technology Roulette: Managing Loss of Control as Many Militaries Pursue Technological Superiority, Richard Danzig, Center for a New American Security, May 2018.
Dual-Use and Emerging Technology
Dual Use Research of Concern in the Life Sciences: Current Issues and Controversies, US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017.
Editing Biosecurity, Jesse Kirkpatrick et al., multidisciplinary study by George Mason University and Stanford University, December 2018. (Interesting partly for its workshops-and-working-papers approach; some of the working papers have been useful for my projects.)
*Gene Drives: Pursuing Opportunities, Minimizing Risk, Kelsey Lane Warmbrod et al., Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, May 2020.
*Risk Communication Strategies for the Very Worst of Cases, Monica Schoch-Spana et al., Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, March 2019.
The Characteristics of Pandemic Pathogens, Amesh Adalja et al., Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, May 2018. (What naturally-occurring organisms could be GCBRs? Hint: it’s respiratory viruses, and this report offers the details as to why. See related EA Global talk.)
I admit I have not read most of these; many are on my to-read-soon list, okay?
*Biological Threats in the 21st Century: The Politics, People, Science and Historical Roots, Ed. Filippa Lentzos, 2016. (Collection of essays by subject matter experts; expensive but recommended as a good and diverse reference.)
The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, Toby Ord, 2020. (Chapters 3 and 5 are the most related to biorisks).
*Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, 2014. (Recommended and reviewed here; book-length sceptical take on non-state bioweapons development.)
*Biosecurity Dilemmas: Dreaded Diseases, Ethical Responses, and the Health of Nations, Christian Eanemark, 2017. (Somewhat philosophical, organized around core tensions / dilemmas in biosecurity and thus recommended by several as a good reference.)
*Global Catastrophic Risks, Ed. Nick Bostrom and Milan M. Cirkovic, 2007. (GBCRs appear in chapters 14 and 20.)
*Synthetic Biology: Safety, Security, and Promise, Gigi Gronvall, 2016.
*The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, David Hoffman, 2009. (Recommended by several people for understanding more about the US bioweapons program.)
*Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker, 2020. (Likely worth getting the May 2020 paperback edition, which has a preface on COVID-19.)
*The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History, Milton Leitenberg and Raymond Zilinskas, 2021.
The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Daniel Ellsberg, 2017. (Not directly about biological risks, but an engaging read that gave me more sense of how the US military operates in the face of catastrophic risks.)
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.
Reducing global catastrophic biological risks, Jamie Yassif, EA Student Summit 2020.
Characteristics of Pandemic Pathogens, Amesh Adalja, EA Global San Francisco 2018.
Assessing global catastrophic biological risks, Crystal Watson, EA Global San Francisco 2018.
Biosecurity as an EA Cause Area, Claire Zabel, EA Global San Francisco 2017.
*Preventing catastrophic risks by mitigating subcatastrophic ones, Marc Lipsitch, EA Global Boston 2017.
Biotechnology and existential risk, Andrew Snyder-Beattie, EA Global London 2017.
Other Talks / Podcasts
Engineering Gene Safety, Renee Wegrzyn, Long Now Seminar, October 2017. (DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office runs extremely interesting biodefense research programs; this is a comprehensive summary of one of them.)
The next outbreak? We’re not ready, Bill Gates, TED talk, April 2015. (Gates founded CEPI the year after this, so he put his money where his TED talk was.)
*Biological Weapons, Power Corrupts Podcast, feat. Filippa Lentzos and Brian Balmer, April 2020.