Thursday, October 15, 2020
Envisioning a world immune to global catastrophic biological risks
What do historical statistics teach us about the accidental release of pandemic bioweapons?
Historically research on dangerous pathogens, for biodefense and bioweapons, has resulted in disturbingly frequent accidental infections of workers and sometimes escaping to the outside world. Straightforward extrapolation of those accident rates suggests that large scale illegal programs working with bioweapons capable of posing global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs) would be released into the world within a few decades. However, if accidental release rates were so high, then why haven't there historically been more pandemics stemming from such releases? Examining the known biological weapons programs, especially the Soviet program (by far the largest), we see that they were overwhelmingly working with diseases that were not capable of pandemic spread, with the few exceptions (particularly smallpox) subject to vaccination or having low fatality rates. This should be expected: clearly the human population could not sustain many high fatality pandemic pathogens naturally circulating. However, it appears that the Soviet program was engaged in active research to produce deadly pandemic pathogens, although it failed to do so with 1980s biotechnology. If a future illegal bioweapons program were follow the Soviet example but succeed with more advanced biotechnology, historical rates of accidental release could pose a more likely threat than intentional use of the pandemic agents in warfare.