A global catastrophic biological risk (GCBR) is a global catastrophic risk that is biological in nature (Lewis 2020; cf. Schoch-Spana et al. 2017).
Existential risks from biotechnology
Biotechnology offers potentially exciting ways to make people much better off, to find new ways to tackle disease, and to address climate change. However, because many biological systems are at least in principle self-replicating, significant modifications of some kinds could also pose serious risks.
A life-sciences area which currently receives attention from risk experts is gain-of-function (GOF) research, in which particularly concerning pathogens like H5N1 influenza are modified to increase their virulence or transmissibility. Researchers are divided as to whether the benefits of such experiments are worth the risks that come from either accidental release of pathogens or the misuse of discoveries by malicious actors (Duprex et al. 2015; Selgelid 2016). In the near term, such pathogens probably pose a non-existential global catastrophic risk, but there is some chance that related life-sciences work might one day pose an existential risk.
Duprex, W. Paul et al. (2015) Gain-of-function experiments: Time for a real debate, Nature Reviews Microbiology, vol. 13, pp. 58–64.
An overview article featuring leading proponents and opponents of gain-of-function experiments discussing the benefits and risks associated with this research.
Esvelt, Kevin (2020) Mitigating catastrophic biorisks, Effective Altruism Forum, September 3.
Inglesby, Thomas V. & Amesh A. Adalja (eds.) (2019) Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, Cham: Springer International Publishing.
Lempel, Howie & Keiran Harris (2020) Dr Greg Lewis on Covid-19 and reducing global catastrophic biological risks, 80,000 Hours, April 17.
Lewis, Gregory (2020) Reducing global catastrophic biological risks, 80,000 Hours, March 9.
Kilbourne, Edwin Dennis (2008) Plagues and pandemics: past, present, and future, in Nick Bostrom & Milan M. Ćirković (eds.) Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 287–307.
Millett, Piers & Andrew Snyder-Beattie (2017) Existential risk and cost-effective biosecurity, Health Security, vol. 15, pp. 373–383.
Nouri, Ali & Christopher F. Chyba (2008) Biotechnology and biosecurity, in Nick Bostrom & Milan M. Ćirković (eds.) Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 450–480.
Schoch-Spana, Monica et al. (2017) Global catastrophic biological risks: toward a working definition, Health Security, vol. 15, pp. 323–328.
Selgelid, Michael J. (2016) Gain-of-Function research: Ethical analysis, Science and Engineering Ethics, vol. 22, pp. 923–964.
A paper outlining the main moral considerations surrounding gain-of-function research.
Shulman, Carl (2020a) What do historical statistics teach us about the accidental release of pandemic bioweapons?, Reflective Disequilibrium, October 15.
Shulman, Carl (2020b) Envisioning a world immune to global catastrophic biological risks, Reflective Disequilibrium, October 15.
Wiblin, Robert & Keiran Harris (2018) The careers and policies that can prevent global catastrophic biological risks, according to world-leading health security expert Dr Inglesby, 80,000 Hours, April 18.
Yassif, Jaime (2017) Reducing global catastrophic biological risks, Health Security, vol. 15, pp. 329–330.