The Doomsday Clock is Ticking on Biosecurity

Countries around the world must cooperate and deepen their investments in global health and biosecurity strategies.

Last Tuesday, we and the other members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board moved the iconic Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. We moved it largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers, both direct and indirect, of the war in Ukraine. (See the accompanying statement we published alongside the time change.) 

The impact of this war on the global order has implications far beyond the nuclear realm and the battlefield more generally. The war thwarts international cooperation exactly when we need cooperation most—to address pressing 21st-century threats such as climate change, mis- and disinformation, and a problem we and others know quite well: the proliferation of biological threats.  

Devastating events like the COVID-19 pandemic can no longer be considered rare, once-a-century occurrences. The number and diversity of infectious disease outbreaks has risen since 1980, with more than half caused by zoonotic diseases (that is, disease originating in animals and transmitted to humans). Zoonoses put the human population in danger of pandemics, a danger we should expect to increase as a changing climate alters animal migrations and behaviors and humans continue to push their built environment into more remote spaces. There is immense, uncharacterized diversity within the 26 virus families and the many phyla of bacteria and other microbes known to infect humans. The world’s ability to predict which of these viruses and microbes are most likely to cause human disease is woefully inadequate.

In response to these growing biological concerns, we have seen many welcome advances in research. We live in a time of revolutionary advances in the life sciences and associated technologies. No doubt some of these could lead to better health outcomes for all. Researchers can engineer living things to acquire new traits with increasing ease and reliability, especially viruses that can be synthesized de novo in the laboratory. Such capabilities inevitably lead to dual-use concerns. But as life sciences and associated technologies advance faster and faster, they outrace oversight regimes, strategies for risk assessment and risk mitigation, and the establishment of norms for scientific pursuit. 

These are not idle concerns. Laboratory accidents occur frequently. Laboratory biosafety and biosecurity programs are challenged by human error, confusion about lab safety requirements, limited understanding of novel disease characteristics, poor appreciation for the risks associated with some research, and lack of local government knowledge about the types of research occurring in labs in their jurisdictions.

Leaders around the world must confront the possibility of global catastrophic biological risks. Sudden, extraordinary, widespread disasters may test or exceed the collective capability of national and international governments and the private sector to control. Cooperation in biosecurity is necessary now more than ever.

There are several important efforts to advance global regulation and cooperation in life sciences research. In September, the World Health Organization released a “Global guidance framework for the responsible use of the life sciences: mitigating biorisks and governing dual-use research.” Similarly, in October, the White House released an updated “National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation Plan,” which takes an all-of-government approach that could serve as a model for others. Both are worthy efforts.

However, much more is required. If we are to reduce these risks, all nations and national governments must make biosecurity a top priority. Every country must:

·      Make greater investments in public health; 

·      Develop, test, and optimize oversight regimes for risky research; 

·      Eliminate biological agents intended as weapons and dismantle programs producing them; 

·      Identify outbreaks before they become epidemics and pandemics; 

·      Share data, analytics, and intelligence on biological events; and 

·      Identify and attribute biological events quickly. 

If countries around the world cooperate on global health and biosecurity strategies and make investments in science, technology, research, and development in the biosecurity sector, we can minimize debilitating illness, widespread death, and disease-induced disasters.

Implementing these solutions will be hard not just because of the technical complexity of the problem but because of today’s diplomatic and political realities. Biosecurity is a worldwide challenge requiring global coordination and oversight. The Russian invasion of Ukraine contributed to the weakening of the international order. It also exposed how weak that order had already become. We need innovative approaches to establish effective cooperative mechanisms to address today’s complex biosecurity problems. 

With the Doomsday Clock now set at 90 seconds to midnight, there isn’t a moment to waste.