Ideas Blog

Why the Covid-19 lab-leak theory is a big deal

Spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with proving the origin of Covid-19, pointing the finger, apportioning blame, reparations, or US-China relations.

The lab leak theory

The lab leak theory, as is now widely understood, is the hypothesis that Covid-19 invaded the human population, not as a result of some ‘natural’ animal-human interaction, but as a result of a coronavirus making its way from laboratory samples directly into the world. The most likely place this might have occurred is at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

To be clear, the lab-leak theory does not rest on there being malicious intent, or gain-of-function research, or negligence. It is enough that a dangerous pathogen might have accidentally emerged from a high security laboratory to wreak havoc on the world. The lab-leak hypothesis does not depend on human engineering of a virus. A naturally occurring (though no less dangerous) virus could still leak from a lab.

A friend of mine expressed the feeling many people have about Covid-19 origins when she said: “I don’t think it really matters. Pandemics will arise from a variety of sources, what’s more important to focus on if how can we learn (from this experience) how to respond better when they do?”

This is part of the crucial point. But our best response to a pandemic is to prevent them. If we are dismissive of a laboratory origin, then our prevention strategies will overlook prevention at laboratory sites. If the laboratory hypothesis is reasonably plausible, then we ought to invest a reasonable amount in securing laboratories. If we are ever able to elucidate the actual origins of Covid-19 and it was in fact a sequence of events involving a laboratory, then our investment in prevention should specifically target that sequence of hazards.

I personally doubt that we will ever find conclusive evidence of a lab leak. This is partly because the leak may have been a leak of a naturally occurring organism, and partly because any hard evidence in supporting a lab leak has almost certainly been destroyed. We should keep investigating, just in case, but I’m not holding my breath.

The probability of a lab-leak

Without conclusive evidence we must take a probabilistic approach. Authors of one account derived the probability of the Covid-19 pandemic being the result of a lab-leak by imputing known published probabilities across a range of key causative variables. On this principled probabilistic account, the probability of a naturally occurring SARS-like community outbreak originating in Wuhan is 1 in 1000 years, while the probability of a lab-leaked community outbreak occurring in Wuhan is 1 in 833 years. Given that there was in fact a SARS-like community outbreak in Wuhan, one of these must have occurred. This means the probability of a lab-leak origin is 55% and a natural origin is 45%. Even under very conservative assumptions these authors still find 6% probability for the lab leak hypothesis. This is the correct approach to reporting on the origins of Covid-19.

We shouldn’t be pitting one theory against the other to determine certainty, which we may never find, we should be determining probability, which can then guide resource allocation.

Hence the reason why the lab-leak theory is a big deal, and it is a very big deal, is simply because it is plausible, and not only plausible, but perhaps equally likely.

Irresponsible representatives and media

There is almost no greater threat to humanity than a global pandemic. This means that we must avoid them at all costs. Unfortunately, getting to the bottom of the issue has become a partisan football. This is clear when former US President Trump spoke of the ‘China virus’, or through the combative imagery, tone and rhetoric on Sky News Australia when that channel reports on the lab-leak hypothesis.

Much media coverage of the Covid-19 origin story is not helping us prevent future pandemics. In fact, it is probably raising the risk. Too many media outlets are running an attack campaign on China. The effect of this kind of approach is likely to push Chinese officials into defensive mode, counter-offensive mode, and secretive mode. None of this helps us achieve a transparent investigation of the facts. This is a lose-lose strategy, and media outlets running this approach will have the blood of future pandemics on their hands.

Other media outlets are running the opposite campaign. They are minimising the lab-leak theory with faulty logic such as ‘there’s no conclusive evidence for a lab-leak’ (when there’s no conclusive evidence for a natural origin either), or ‘Leading biologist dampens his “smoking gun” Covid lab leak theory.’ Which misses the point that a lab-leak of a naturally occurring organism might not carry a ‘smoking gun’ genetic signature. None of this is helpful.

High-reliability industries and system safety

Many industries depend on ultra high-reliability functioning. These are industries where one failure can have dire consequences. The rate of error needs to be as low as one in a million, or even less. We don’t want any more than one in a million patients to die due to anaesthesia, or one in a million planes to crash, or one in a million nuclear control rods to jam. Ideally the failure rate is even less. In surgery, these are the ‘never events’.

These high-reliability industries, provide a template for the way to investigate causal factors when disaster (or near miss) happens. The process must be a robust, dispassionate, no blame approach. People are error-prone, this is simply a fact of our psychology and biology. Therefore, systems must be engineered to make failure impossible. It is inadequate systems that cause catastrophe because the systems have not adequately protected against error-prone humans.

In laboratory science we never want a dangerous highly communicable organism to infect a human. In fact, the downside is so great (potentially millions if not billions of lives at risk) that we should aim to have complete knowledge of any situations where a laboratory safety failure might possibly have occurred, or is predisposed to occur, or has occurred with 50% probability!

If the lab-leak theory is equally likely to the natural origin theory, then we should assume that there was a lab-leak and spend a decent amount of resource conducting a no-fault investigation into how-possibly it might happen. What causal factors could lead to a lab-leak. This kind of process should draw upon the well-established principles of root cause analysis and failure modes and effects analysis from engineering, as well as human factors principles deployed in high-reliability systems. If any flaw in the laboratory system is identified, then this must be addressed, and the learnings shared with all other labs and also with regulators. All this should occur whether or not we ever find conclusive proof a lab-leak happened.

There should be no witch hunt, there should be no talk of fault and blame and reparations. In fact, there should be a guarantee that no fault will be determined. We want cooperation, transparency and access, but sadly the approach to date has been combative and finger pointing. Representatives’ comments fuel headlines and headlines fuel the agenda of representatives in a vicious cycle. Each actor in this system whether editor or politician has a responsibility for nurturing the conversation in a direction more likely to save future lives than cost them.

Greatest threat to humanity

Covid-19 is, thankfully, a serious but not catastrophic pandemic. Next time we might not be so lucky. An engineered virus, possibly the result of gain-of-function research, could escape a laboratory. It could cause another global pandemic, it could kill a billion people. All this makes the threat from bioengineering a greater, or at least more immediate risk than climate change, a risk equivalent to nuclear war, a risk potentially more imminent than a catastrophic failure of advanced artificial intelligence. Seen in this light the world ought to be far more interested in preventing the next pandemic, far more fastidious about identifying all ways that a virus ‘how-possibly’ might have escaped the Wuhan Institute of virology, and spending far less time and effort waiting for conclusive proof, and seeking to blame, effort that is preventing us preventing the next pandemic.

Even if the probability of a lab-leak at Wuhan is ‘only 6%’, but especially if it is 55%, then decision makers need to pay attention. There is no point waiting for a ‘smoking gun’. Biosafety and biosecurity should be ultra high priority policy domains moving forward.

There is in fact a blueprint for how to begin the process of preventing lab-leaks. The Global Health Security Index (GHSI) proscribes 140 things that countries can do to enhance health security. Many of these items pertain to biosafety and laboratory security, and almost no countries have implemented any of them to date. It is unfortunate that some measures of Covid-19 ‘success’ have not correlated with the GHSI, and hence some researchers have criticised the GHSI’s usefulness. If lab-leak is a live hypothesis, this mindset might mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The Climate Change Commission in New Zealand has recently recommended that changes required to cut emissions to acceptable levels might cost 1.2% of GDP by 2050. At a global level this is US$1 trillion dollars per year. Appropriate investment in biosafety and biosecurity, including contributions to new and needed international organisations probably does not need come anywhere close to this, but such investments are an equal priority given the risks and probabilities involved. It just so happens that US$1 trillion dollars per year is the expected average annual cost of emerging infectious diseases.

Some first steps are obvious, and free. The world banned atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and we can ban gain of function research in virology.

SARS-CoV-2: A modern Greek Tragedy?

Cassandra: True prophecies that were never believed

Despite a WHO-led investigation, compelling evidence on the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus remains inconclusive. The WHO investigation concluded in favour of a natural origin, being satisfied that ‘asking whatever questions we wanted’ and obtaining answers to these questions ruled out a laboratory leak. Researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology stated that they do not keep similar viruses to SARS-CoV-2, and they have appropriate safety training (while not divulging actual laboratory records).

Skeptics of the natural origin theory, on the other hand, say they wouldn’t trust the outcome of the investigation because it was closely overseen by China’s government. In fact a new report just published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists argues in favour of the lab leak theory citing publicly available records of gain-of-function coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that specifically made use of ‘humanized’ mice, to enhance the ability of the virus to infect human cells. Furthermore, there is some indication that risky work was undertaken not in the strictest ‘BSL 4’ laboratory conditions, but in a more lax BSL 2 environment. The full report in all its forensic detail is available here.

So who is right? Where did SARS-CoV-2 emerge from? When there are competing uncertain hypotheses we might employ a principle of parsimony to infer the correct explanation, or we can use a principle based on prior knowledge of conditions that might be related to the event.

Parsimony: Ockham’s Razor

Ockham’s razor is the principle that when solving a problem (or explaining a pandemic), entities should not be multiplied without necessity. Basically, the explanation that posits the fewest moving parts is likely to be the right one. Did the existence of nature cause a pandemic? Or did the existence of nature AND a virus laboratory in Wuhan cause a pandemic. In this case, parsimony would lead us to conclude that SARS-CoV-2 emerged naturally, the simplest explanation.

Prior probabilities: Bayes’ Theorem

However, there is another approach. Bayes’ Theorem allows for conditioning probabilities on known data points particular to a case of interest, rather than merely on background probabilities. For example, the probability of a coronavirus outbreak across scenarios such as:

  1. in a random city
  2. in Wuhan specifically
  3. in Wuhan given the existence of an Institute of Virology
  4. in Wuhan given the existence of an Institute of Virology that is conducting work on how to modify coronaviruses so that they more easily infect humans
  5. in Wuhan given the existence of an Institute of Virology that is conducting work on how to modify coronaviruses so that they more easily infect humans, and in which it is known that laboratory safety protocols are being violated

We see that scenario (5) posits a lot more entities (an institute, a specific project, particular behaviours, etc) compared to merely ‘nature’ and therefore according to Ockham’s razor such an explanation is manifestly unnecessary to explain the pandemic. However, according to Bayes’ Theorem the base (‘prior’) probability of the pandemic being the result of a lab leak must be massively increased given the additional information contained in (5). Furthermore, if we do not find data points that we would expect to find were the natural outbreak theory true, such as evidence of rapid viral evolution in early cases, or evidence of a natural animal reservoir of SARS-CoV-2, then we must revise downward the probability that natural is the correct explanation (even if it is the most parsimonious).

But have details such as those proposed in the previous paragraph been borne out? The article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists argues ‘Yes’. You can read the full article by clicking the link, but here are two key passages.

“No one has found the bat population that was the source of SARS2, if indeed it ever infected bats. No intermediate host has presented itself, despite an intensive search by Chinese authorities that included the testing of 80,000 animals. There is no evidence of the virus making multiple independent jumps from its intermediate host to people, as both the SARS1 and MERS viruses did. There is no evidence from hospital surveillance records of the epidemic gathering strength in the population as the virus evolved. There is no explanation of why a natural epidemic should break out in Wuhan and nowhere else. There is no good explanation of how the virus acquired its furin cleavage site, which no other SARS-related beta-coronavirus possesses, nor why the site is composed of human-preferred codons. The natural emergence theory battles a bristling array of implausibilities.”

These findings would push a Bayesian to downgrade the likelihood of a natural origin from whatever prior probability was favoured. And then, in research funded by the US National Institute of Health, taking place at the Wuhan Institute of Virology:

“Dr. Shi set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells. Her plan was to take genes that coded for spike proteins possessing a variety of measured affinities for human cells, ranging from high to low. She would insert these spike genes one by one into the backbone of a number of viral genomes (“reverse genetics” and “infectious clone technology”), creating a series of chimeric viruses. These chimeric viruses would then be tested for their ability to attack human cell cultures (“in vitro”) and humanized mice (“in vivo”). And this information would help predict the likelihood of “spillover,” the jump of a coronavirus from bats to people… The methodical approach was designed to find the best combination of coronavirus backbone and spike protein for infecting human cells. The approach could have generated SARS2-like viruses, and indeed may have created the SARS2 virus itself with the right combination of virus backbone and spike protein… It cannot yet be stated that Dr. Shi did or did not generate SARS2 in her lab because her records have been sealed, but it seems she was certainly on the right track to have done so.”

These facts, along with evidence pointing to unsafe laboratory practices detailed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article raise the probability of the less than parsimonious explanation.

US Intelligence and Donald Trump

Furthermore, the laboratory project of concern was being undertaken in Wuhan, but was funded by the US NIH. This new knowledge explains some previously puzzling facts. The lab-origin theory (and possible early illnesses affecting lab staff in November 2019 as detailed in the Bulletin) is consistent with the US intelligence services claim that there were cases of SARS-CoV-2 prior to December 2019, as detailed here. President Trump then cited the lab theory as his favoured theory based on the intelligence he had received (see here), and he used a PR tactic of referring to SARS-CoV-2 as ‘the China virus’ repeatedly. This could all have been dismissed as it was at the time as Republican posturing. It seemed unusual at the time that if US intelligence or Trump had a smoking gun implicating the Wuhan Institute of Virology, then given their rivalry with China they would have revealed this to the world. As it transpires, the coronavirus project at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was funded by the US NIH. Had intelligence officials, or Trump himself in the interests of political point scoring made their information public, then the US would have immediately been implicated. The lab-leak theory now explains something that was previously unexplained. Explainability is another marker of a correct hypothesis.

Mitigation Matters

Why does it matter where SARS-CoV-2 originated from, given that it is now here, and everywhere on Earth? The list of plausible origin stories for a situation like COVID-19 has immense practical importance. Because to mitigate such events in the future, we must ensure that at least some of the measures we deploy target the actual sequence of events. If the ‘most likely’ explanation is a natural origin, and we target all future measures at reducing the probability of natural origin, and yet in fact, the origin was anthropogenic, then we may miss the opportunity to lower the risk of anthropogenic catastrophe in the future. Certainty and zealous defence of parsimonious explanation is an extremely risky policy strategy.

Prevention policy and the lose-lose square

In global risk reduction there are often difficulties getting buy-in for prevention, safety and preparedness measures because vested interests obstruct the process (think fossil fuels and carbon emissions). Some policies aimed at mitigation result in someone or some state winning and someone else losing. There may be fear of economic contraction or first mover disadvantage in some domain. Yet in the complex game-theoretic melee of international relations there are lose-lose positions, where no one wins from the status quo. This is where leverage might be gained to help reduce global catastrophic risk. There is a prima facie case, enhanced by the discussion above, that gain-of-function research on viruses capable of infecting humans sits entirely in the lose-lose square. By banning such research we can reduce the risk of technological catastrophe.

Science advances ‘Funeral by funeral’

The article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists made me think of a quote by Max Planck. To paraphrase, ‘science progresses one funeral at a time’. Planck’s idea was that scientists are a dogmatic breed and the only way falsehoods vanish is through the death of their proponents. However, given today’s scenario, this maxim can be interpreted a different way. The ongoing litany of technological catastrophes (think the Bhopal disaster, Banqiao dam failure, Chernobyl disaster, recent ‘Irresponsible’ rocket debris) seem to indicate that death must occur for safety and wisdom to truly advance. It is the funerals of ordinary citizens, victims of hubris (or gain-of-function research), whose deaths may (or may not) lead to safer systems and more precaution. Science may well advance ‘funeral by funeral’.

Greek Tragedy

As one public health physician has recently put it: “The irony is that it was US-funded research, and like a Greek tragedy may have created the end it was seeking to avoid: a pandemic.” Whether SARS-CoV-2 emerged from a laboratory or not, we must be sure that we do not move forward creating the very ends that we seek to avoid.

Island Refuges: How Australia and New Zealand could cooperate to protect humanity from catastrophic biological threats and nuclear winter

Image source: Google Maps

Key Points

  • Biological threats far worse than Covid-19 are possible, even likely.
  • Governments should consider worst case scenarios and contingencies.
  • Risks should be catalogued and published in a form that expresses expected utility loss (probability x impact).
  • In an existence threatening scenario, Australia and New Zealand are the island refuges most suited to seal borders to safeguard humanity.
  • Many practical steps can be taken to ensure that island refuges are a viable option of last resort if a catastrophic biothreat arises.
  • Island refuges in some geographic locations might offer additional resilience against nuclear winter.

It’s no longer surprising news that COVID-19 may be a warning shot that provides humanity the chance and the motivation to address some of the many catastrophic global risks. Our latest research paper explains the rationale and practicalities of island refuges as mitigation.

Biological Threats

Pandemic viruses with high case fatality could potentially infect a majority of the population. Deliberate biological events (DBEs) have occurred before (Millet & Snyder-Beattie, 2017a), will likely occur again, and could pose catastrophic or existential threat to humans. With rapidly advancing biotechnology it is conceivable that an engineered virus might combine features of very high transmissibility and very high case fatality. Multiple engineered viruses could conceivably be deployed simulataneously to achieve close to 100% fatality risk in human populations (Turchin & Denkenberger, 2018). Finally, new technologies such as artificial intelligence could amplify biothreats in many ways (O’Brien & Nelson, 2020).

The threat of a DBE could be partly driven by a search for ‘winter safe’ deterrence (Baum, 2015), or for cheaper alternatives (relative to nuclear weapon arsenals) to nuclear mutually assured destruction. These risks are amplified because the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has no verification system (Dando, 2016), and has been violated in the past (Gronvall, 2018). It would only take one unanticipated or accidental event for a bioweapon (or laboratory accident) to become a catastrophic threat.

These risks should ideally be expressed by governments in terms of expected utility loss (ie probability x impact). For example, hypothetically:

  • A 20% probability per annum of an Ebola outbreak that kills 10,000 people, for which the expected utility loss is 2,000 deaths per annum.
  • A 1% probability per annum of a catastrophic biological attack that kills 20,000,000 people, for which the expected utility loss is 200,000 deaths per annum.

Clearly the second threat would be the larger risk and at least some analysis and policy resources should be tasked with better understanding risks like it and how to mitigate them.

Resources could be allocated to risk mitigation in proportion to the expected utility loss, keeping in mind that some mitigation measures will address multiple risks.

We need options of last resort

No preventive or resilience strategy is foolproof. An anthropogenic pandemic of existential magnitude is probably more likely than a naturally occurring one, and the world ought to pursue technologies that ensure safety.

However, last lines of defense may be required, such as refuges. If an island nation closed its borders quickly enough, allowing no one at all in, it could keep the threat at bay, thereby protectively sequestering its population and preserving technological know-how.

Island Refuges

Image source: iStock

Many islands might unintentionally act as refuges where humanity survives, such as North Sentinel Island which harbours a population that vigorously rejects outsiders. However, many such islands do not harbour the materials and know-how to preserve a technologically flourishing civilisation.

Our new research paper poses the question, ‘which islands are most suited to safeguard a population of humans in order that a technologically flourishing global civilisation might be restored after a catastrophic pandemic?’

We explore this question in depth and determine it is Australia, New Zealand and Iceland, but that none of these three islands is yet fully prepared to play such a role in protecting human existence as we know it. Given Australia and New Zealand’s proximity and close relationship there is potential to cooperate on such a project, especially given there is redundancy with four potential island refuges (Australian mainland, Tasmania, North Island and South Island of New Zealand).

COVID-19 taught us that pandemics may reach many remote islands only after some delay, giving such islands a chance to successfully close their borders and keep the disease out. We also know that there were many disruptions to trade and that such disruptions would only be worse in a more severe pandemic. Disruption could be total in a catastrophic situation.

Preparations should be a mixture of specific anticipatory actions, and more generalist responses for all kinds of scenarios.

Refuge preparations

In order to ensure that an island can survive intact through the catastrophe a number of aspects of self-sufficiency and security need to be developed ahead of time. For example:

  • early warning systems
  • food security
  • energy security
  • essential services
  • health security
  • disaster resilience
  • psychological resilience
  • overcoming legal barriers.

Our research paper provides a table of additional possible preparations in the Supporting Material.

Governments should articulate these risks, and possible mitigation measures, crowdsource additional strategies, and begin to evaluate the rationale and priority of various preparations.

Effective military and/or police capability may be needed to repel those determined to try to reach the refuge (who might bring disease with them). This is a weakness many small islands face, however military technology is rapidly becoming cheaper, smaller, more versatile, and autonomous. Still, it would be more ideal for the global community to discuss and recognise refuges ahead of time, and coordinate, perhaps via a treaty or UN resolution, to leave the refuge island(s) alone should a catastrophic pandemic arise. The future of humanity could depend on it.  

Nuclear winter

Robbie Norman: Getty Images

Finally, some refuges might help mitigate nuclear winter. The threat of nuclear war persists. A small-scale war between India and Pakistan could have dramatic implications for global agricultural productivity threatening mass starvation (Toon et al., 2019). A limited nuclear war (<1% of the world’s arsenal) could disrupt the climate for 5-10 years, especially above latitude 30 degrees north (Jagermeyr et al., 2020). A larger nuclear war between the US and Russia could lead to below freezing summer temperatures over much of the northern hemisphere (Coupe, Bardeen, Robock, & Toon, 2020). Large scale nuclear war could be catastrophic with the possibility of human extinction, although there would likely be some survivors notably ‘in Australia and New Zealand’ (Robock, 2010). Supervolcanic or asteroid/comet impact winter may have similar effects (Rampino, 2011; Vellekoop et al., 2014), perhaps, too, a geoengineering catastrophe (Dykema, Keith, Anderson, & Weisenstein, 2014).

This means that it might be sensible for Australia and New Zealand to also consider what might mitigate nuclear winter situations as well. There may be some substantive overlap in resilience preparations for nuclear war and for catastrophic biological risks. This is because we can confront nuclear winter by increasing humanity’s resilience to it (Baum, 2016). In the context of a global nuclear war, island refuge status might be imposed involuntarily.

Island nations such as New Zealand could: stockpile food (including alternative sources) (Martinez et al., 2020), water, sunscreen, fuel, and medical supplies; shielding against UV radiation; and secure telecommunications against electromagnetic pulses or loss of cloud connectivity (Baum, 2016).

The reverse of winter scenarios, extreme global warming, is another catastrophic scenario (albeit probably over a longer timeframe), and if the process is reversible then Iceland could potentially harbour a population safely until the threat has passed.

Amplifying risk factors

There are many other considerations that might help or hinder the functioning of a refuge. The 2021 US Intelligence Global Trends Report, warns of the potential fragmentation of societies and the global order, with the possibility of international trade disruption, groups of countries creating online enclaves, and eroded civic cohesion. This is important because social factors such as the degree of societal ‘tightness’ or ‘looseness’ have been correlated with better and worse Covid-19 outcomes. Mechanistic modelling shows how tightness arises in high threat environments because it’s an advantage. Tight countries do better in threat situations and this only enhances the concerns raised in the US intelligence report. It seems some kinds of social structures and interactions are worth nurturing and other trends must be overcome.

Government action is needed

Governments should invest in teams analysing these very large scale threats and trying to determine with more certainty the expected utility loss. This would allow them to publish risk registers, invite crowd-sourced (public sector, business, civil society) input about mitigation strategies, and to rationally prioritise investment in the context of competing demands. Some necessary preparations might be intergenerational human resilience projects.

Risk and Resilience in Aotearoa/New Zealand

Photo credit: Edge2Edge Media

New Zealand should up its game in risk identification, analysis, and prevention. This is the key message from former GNS principal scientist Kelvin Berryman when discussing a new risks report. He told the Listener, ‘New Zealand is still creating its own disasters waiting to happen.’

The risks report in question was published in April 2021 by former Chief Science Advisor Peter Gluckman and co-author Anne Bardsley. It details New Zealand’s need to address ‘uncertain but inevitable’ risks. The report has garnered media attention such as RadioNZ’s coverage here, and the feature in the Listener available here (paywalled).

The general thrust of ‘Uncertain but Inevitable’ is that governments are responsible for keeping people safe, the New Zealand government has developed a National Risk Register, which allegedly includes maximum credible threats, however this is kept secret when it ought to be public, and that much more institutional transparency and accountability of risk assessment are needed. There should be an apolitical focus on high-impact risks that overcomes three particular failures: (1) risk identification, assessment and communication, (2) human factors (especially issues of cognitive biases), and (3) policy/political dimensions.

I certainly applaud the efforts to improve the scale, scope and transparency of risk analysis in New Zealand. A few additional points warrant mention:

Firstly, it is very notable that the former Chief Science Advisor is critiquing the National Risk Register, one supposes that he was privy to at least some of its contents in his former official capacity, and if he feels the register and/or risk processes surrounding it in Aotearoa/New Zealand are inadequate then we should certainly take note.

Second, the focus on ‘uncertain but inevitable’ risks is surely too narrow. The Listener piece  states that a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said, ‘New Zealand had a good track record of identifying and managing risks and was committed to ensuring public discussion about nationally significant risks.’ However, New Zealand’s approach to risks has traditionally been a reactive one. Even forward-looking endeavours like EQC are designed for the aftermath. A track record, even a good one, is not necessarily good for unprecedented and unexpected risks. Notably, our ‘successes’ with Covid-19, the Christchurch earthquake and so on, were with regard to risks that were neither unprecedented, nor unexpected. What about emerging risks such as biological engineering, misaligned artificial intelligence, solar geoengineering, rising digital totalitarianism, newly discovered risks from space, and the established but unaddressed risks of nuclear, volcanic and asteroid/comet induced winters, let alone technological risks yet to be identified.

Thirdly, the Listener reported that the authors of ‘Uncertain but Inevitable’ believe it would be theoretically possible to have an all-encompassing risk register, however, they felt that such a register could overwhelm its audience, or result in generic or vague risks. I would counter this point by saying that the point of a risk register is to formalise analysis, to be sure the assessment is systematic and comprehensive. But the register needs to record dimensions beyond the traditional coarse ‘likelihood’ and ‘magnitude’ categories. By adding best probability estimates, best impact on life-years and the economy estimates, considerations of tractability, lists of possible interventions and best estimates of cost-effectiveness (all constantly updated as new information comes to hand), then risks can be ranked by expected annual utility loss. A risk budget can be determined, and this budget allocated to the highest priority risks. It may be that the most important risks are not those that we traditionally pour investment into, such as road safety or flood banks, but rather risks such as the next Covid-19 or a nuclear winter. That remains to be determined by the process just outlined. The register would not be overwhelming if we start by addressing the Top 10 risks.

Fourthly, Berryman is cited in the Listener article as saying that we need more and better science communication. There is plenty of knowledge and research about risks, but this doesn’t always find its way into public policy. This is something I completely agree with and at Adapt Research we hope to initiate a New Zealand Human Futures Forum (currently a funding application is under consideration), which would focus on nurturing discussion and information sharing about global catastrophic and existential threats in a way that is relevant to Aotearoa/New Zealand. This risk category is notably absent from almost all risk policy work. We have previously noted this omission at the level of the UN, and locally in the domains of artificial intelligence and catastrophic biological threats. And yet, when the approach taken in point three above is deployed, such risks may be the most rational ones to address.

“Green zones” pave the way to eradication of SARS-CoV-2

Image by x3 from Pixabay

Effective vaccines for COVID-19 raise the potential of disease eradication (elimination at the global level). Adapt Research contributed to a recent blog that considers the advantages and the challenges of eradication. Progressive expansion of “green zones” provide the best chance of eradicating COVID-19 and achieving the associated medium and long-term benefits. Full blog hosted externally, click here to continue reading.

Media commentary on the blog appeared in the New Zealand Herald on 18 March 2021.

The COVID-19 house fire and the unbearable silence of fire alarms

Key Points

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) needs a more proactive and transparent Emergency Committee to raise the alarm in health crises
  • Potentially catastrophic disease outbreaks must trigger a fire alarm, because humans resist action unless a piercing alarm is sounding
  • New international structures for rapid high-level propagation of the alarm are needed to ensure hasty responses
  • It will be necessary to have false alarms to ensure all true threats are detected
  • WHO pandemic advice should be tailored to contexts (eg island nations), rather than one-size-fits-all

WHO? The Emergency Committee

The international health regulations (IHR) provide for the Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) in appropriate circumstances.

PHEIC is meant to be a signal to all countries that significant actions, aid and cooperation may all be needed. Critics have lambasted the late timing of PHEIC declaration for COVID-19 and also the opaque nature of the acronym.

The WHO Emergency Committee declared a PHEIC on 30 Jan 2020, not at its first, but at its second meeting, two months after searches for ‘SARS’ had been spiking on WeChat and one month after laboratory confirmation of a ‘SARS coronavirus’ in the context of dozens of cases of pneumonia of unknown origin.

SARS is specifically named in the IHR as a virus of significant concern. The world saw in 2003 how SARS coronaviruses can behave. Surely there was a strong argument for convening the Emergency Committee as early as 1 January 2020 and declaring a PHEIC immediately. We argue this point in our research letter published 23 February 2021.

Unfortunately, key information appears to have been suppressed in Wuhan during December 2019 leading to continued widespread travel in and out of the region throughout January.

With a more flexible decision-making process, able to countenance disparate and informal information sources (WeChat, Google, ProMed, Twitter), and with a mandate to investigate to verify concerning information, things might have been different for the Emergency Committee, and the world.

We need a fire alarm

Fire Alarm Sign

Entities like the WHO Emergency Committee are fearful of unnecessarily alarming the world, so they remain silent for too long. Their function is analogous to a fire alarm, they are supposed to warn us loud and clear of imminent emergency. But fire alarms don’t actually tell us when there is a fire, as Eliezer Yudkowsky has explained. More times than not when a fire alarm sounds there is no fire, and this is how it must be. The threshold for alarm must be set below the threshold for risk so that the alarm sounds for all actual fires. Missing even one fire ends in ruin. The WHO Emergency Committee clearly missed a fire all through January 2020.

The mere sight of smoke (think snippets of information appearing on ProMed, or WeChat, or sidebar news stories) is not enough to compel people to act. This is especially true in a crowded world because of psychological barriers such as the bystander effect (surely someone else will act! I don’t want to look silly…).

Fire alarms give permission to act. If the alarm sounds, it’s OK to leave the building. It’s OK to get the extinguisher. It’s OK to close borders to arrivals from a disease epicentre. It’s OK to put masks on in public. You’re not going to look silly, because the alarm is sounding.

Well-functioning alarms activate at a low threshold and early enough that the fire can still be extinguished. The alarm must be piercing enough that normal activity cannot continue until the alarm is off. Alarms can be switched off right away if there is no evidence of a fire, but the fire brigade has to have time to check the building first.

A case in point was Auckland in February 2021. The city was put into a three-day lockdown in response to three community cases of COVID-19. Some critics said, with hindsight, that it was a ‘false alarm’ and complained that the government was too hasty. But the sight of people suddenly wearing masks, social distancing, and getting COVID tests because of the lockdown ‘alarm’ shows that fire alarms have a purpose. The brigade checked the building, and the alarm was quickly switched off.

PHEIC and prejudice

The issues surrounding the failures of the PHEIC alarm system are discussed in more depth in a podcast published by Nature. In sum there probably should be:

  • More transparency around the activities of the WHO’s Emergency Committee, in particular have the IHR criteria for declaring a PHEIC been met? (we know that Emergency Committees have been inconsistent in this aspect)
  • More powers to investigate/respond to non-official data on outbreaks
  • A ‘traffic light’ system so that PHEIC isn’t simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’, giving the Emergency Committee more powers to raise alert levels early on.
  • An international Pandemic Treaty
  • Reduction in Incentives to NOT report outbreaks (due to fear of economic harm if hotspots are then avoided – perhaps a compensation system could be workable?)
  • Incentives for countries to WANT to set up long-term systems and care about monitoring
  • Incentives for countries to agree to do these things

An industrial inferno: Global catastrophic biological risks

COVID-19 is a serious smouldering house fire, needing constant vigilance to put out hotspots. The next pandemic could be an industrial inferno.

There is a significant difference between a virus that causes fewer than 1% of those infected to die and one that causes 10%, 20%, 50% or more to die. Higher case fatality risk than COVID-19, or even higher than SARS (2003), poses the risk of a global biological catastrophe that overwhelms human systems and devastates society.

In our research letter, we argue that not only should PHEIC be declared much earlier, but that it should be declared ‘with-‘ or ‘without-‘ catastrophic risk. This might be the impetus for even stronger initial measures (such as Wuhan-style lockdowns, or border closure for island nations) right at the outset, with a realistic chance of eliminating the outbreak before it becomes a pandemic.

As successive instances of community transmission and the alert level system in several countries have shown, an initial overreaction can always be swiftly downgraded as information comes to light, but the reverse is not possible.

Pandemic advice: one size does not fit all

Initial and ongoing advice by the WHO following the PHEIC declaration was not context specific. For example, though possibly in line with evidence at the time for some contexts, advising against travel restrictions was completely inappropriate for small island nations. Perhaps even larger island nations such as the UK should have closed borders and pursued an elimination strategy for COVID-19. The UK faces obvious additional hurdles to the success of such a strategy, including dense connections to continental Europe, close proximity to other landmass making non-commercial sea and air access easy, as well as a huge logistical challenge and high probability of quarantine failures. That said, it may not be impossible and the debate was presented in The Guardian.

International cooperation is needed

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark is leading an independent investigation into the global response to COVID-19. Speaking at the University of Otago, Wellington, on 1 Feb 2021, she indicated that a number of her recommendations, forthcoming in May, will centre around strengthening global institutions and connecting top-level decision makers. These connections will facilitate the functions that the world expects of these institutions.

A summary of her talk was published in The Conversation. Clark emphasised that nations must stop trying to go it alone. There is a strong case for multilateralism and the world needs to remove obstacles to a precautionary approach that were evident in China in December 2019, and within the WHO in January 2020.

At the Davos 2021 meeting, Ursula von der Leyen (President of the European Commission) delivered a speech noting that Europe is proposing a biodefense preparedness programme to sit within the new European Health Emergency Response Authority (HERA). The programme will scan for pathogens and prepare vaccines, with long-term predictable funding and public-private partnership. Earlier detection and faster scaling of response is needed. These are positive steps.

However, the solution, according to Helen Clark, must be global, and may need to include a high-level pandemic council consisting of the UN Secretary General, the WHO Director General, and the heads of the IMF and World Bank. This council can immediately agree on a course of action then use their influence to directly contact heads of state, finance ministers, and health ministers to coordinate a response. New Zealand could advocate for such a Council so that it is no longer a cork bobbing in the ocean of audacious whims of individualist global leaders, awaiting the sound of an alarm that will legitimise the necessary drastic action.

Valid Assessment and the Future of Health Security

Birth of the International Health Regulations

After the world failed to contain the 2003 SARS outbreak and it became a pandemic, the 2005 international health regulations (IHR) were born. The IHR included a mandate to report any cases of certain diseases (including SARS) to the World Health Organization (WHO) within 24 hours. Importantly the IHR requires all countries to be capable of preventing, detecting and responding to health emergencies.

Non-Compliance

Prevention and detection clearly failed at the outset for COVID-19. There is some evidence that a censured laboratory report identifying ‘SARS coronavirus’ emerged at Wuhan Central Hospital on 30 Dec 2019. Given the mandate to notify cases of SARS, and given the 2003 experience of a SARS pandemic, the WHO should have been able to declare a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) then and there. That did not happen. As it transpired a lack of Chinese transparency, politicisation, and reluctance to report the facts meant that the outbreak was not prevented, nor appropriately detected.

However, the IHR also mandates that countries ensure they are prepared to respond to global health threats. But once COVID-19 spread outside of China we saw how unprepared the world truly was.

This had been known for years. In 2012 only 42 of 194 States Parties to the IHR had self-reported compliance. This meant that 152 countries were not prepared to prevent, detect, or respond to significant health threats. Given the self-reported nature of the evidence, the reality may have been much worse. Two initiatives followed:

Invest and Measure

(1) the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) – a collaboration among many nations to enhance health security through investment and knowledge sharing, where notably the US invested nearly $1 billion in the health security of 31 developing nations.

(2) the Joint External Evaluations (JEE) with the WHO, whereby countries assessed their progress in conjunction with external teams, resulting in recommendations.

By 2018 only a minority of countries had yet undergone a JEE. Furthermore, it is apparent that many other factors contribute to health security beyond being prepared to prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks. For example, the quality of the health system and health workforce, the degree to which countries comply with international norms, and the risk environment. The world needed a universal and comprehensive measure of health security to identify gaps and target efforts.

The Global Health Security Index

The Global Health Security Index (GHSI) is such a tool and was used to measure health security capability of 195 countries across 140 items in 2019. The average global score was 40.2/100.

However, to be useful any measure of health security must be valid.

In a paper just published in BMJ Global Health, we report a validation analysis of the GHSI. Highlights are:

  1. The GHSI has face validity, being the culmination of a programme of work that began with a systematic search for factors that underpin health security.
  2. GSHI correlates strongly with measures of the JEE and so is useful for countries that have not yet undergone a JEE.
  3. GHSI correlates moderately with aggregate mortality from communicable diseases suggesting that increasing GHSI might improve disease outcomes.
  4. Countries that received US health security investments have higher GHSI (perhaps indicating the effectiveness of these investments).
  5. GHSI scores are typically higher for countries with past domestic cases of SARS (indicating that countries might learn from prior outbreaks).

Overall, we found that the GHSI is a somewhat valid measure of health security, that is perhaps best used by countries to identify gaps in health security that might warrant further analysis. This is exactly what the authors of the original GHSI report concluded in the same recent issue of BMJ Global Health: The value proposition of the GHSI.

Beyond the GHSI

However, the impact of COVID-19 makes clear that we need to address factors that the JEE and GHSI do not measure and perhaps cannot measure. Institutional knowledge, a sense of urgency, relationships established in living memory, cross-sectoral logistics and resilience, all these factors may be critical to responses, and difficult to measure.

Other overlooked factors may include: root cause analysis of laboratory accidents and near misses; gathering intelligence on biological threats; cyber-biosecurity practices; the capability to strictly manage borders and quarantine; the elimination of wet markets and wildlife trade; and the apparent negative impact of sanctions, federalism, the politicisation of media and misinformation and disinformation on social and mainstream media.

Enhancing health security needs to be one of the world’s foremost projects (in the vein of climate action). This is for a number of reasons:

  • The rising risk of accidental bioengineering disaster
  • The rising risk of powerful biological weapons
  • The rising risk of AI enhanced biological manipulations
  • The likelihood of future pandemics
  • The clear inadequacy of the present IHR to ensure protection
  • The obvious cost-effectiveness of preventing biological catastrophe

How Much Will it Cost?

The cost of bringing all countries up to a minimum level of health security is probably marginal in the context of COVID-19. We found some evidence that that the US investment of a mere $1 billion correlated with significantly higher GHSI scores on average across 31 countries (+6 points overall, +10 for detection & reporting). For context, $1b is only 1/2000th of the initial US Congress COVID-19 stimulus package. The WHO has estimated it would cost $100 billion to bring 67 developing countries up to IHR compliance. Given the stakes (trillions lost to COVID-19) this is a no brainer.

The Path Forward

More will need to be done, especially in light of COVID-19, including structural changes to the IHR, and the process by which WHO declares PHEICs. Developed countries should increase their overseas development assistance to the 0.7% of GDP recommended by the UN and target their own gaps in health security. Many critics have suggested paths forward, see the following links for examples:

The algorithm, the asshole, and the virus

Social media is killing us with COVID-19

In December 2017, six months after writing a paper about how islands like New Zealand should use complete border closure as a rational pandemic response, I was giving a talk about artificial intelligence as a threat to democracy and free will to a room full of philosophers in Dunedin, New Zealand.

At the time the world had never heard of a company called Cambridge Analytica nor had any inkling of SARS-CoV-2. Unknown to me, at that exact time, Jaron Lanier was writing a (much better than my talk!) book about the malignant impact of social media on our wellbeing and society. It was called ‘10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now’ (Note, Lanier is not the titular asshole of this story).

After dabbling in the philosophy of AI, I returned to pandemic threats, publishing a blog in November 2019. Right when a bat was infecting the first Wuhan citizen with SARS-CoV-2, the blog provided commentary on the Global Health Security Index (GHSI), an index that conveyed a grim assessment of pandemic preparedness around the world.

In the present blog, I want to draw these disparate and seemingly unrelated related strands together. My thesis is that the business model of social media has played a critical causal role in the deaths of probably hundreds of thousands of people due to COVID-19.

‘Delete your social media right now’

Lanier was an early virtual reality developer, and has been involved with Internet2, Google (which bought his company), Second Life, LinkedIn, and a host of other digital projects. He is also a classical composer. He argued in his 2018 book that we would all be better off deleting all our social media accounts ‘right now’ and he has no social media himself at all.

In his entertaining yet serious way Lanier describes the business model of many social media platforms as: ‘Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent’, aka BUMMER.

As we have come to understand, the social media platforms effectively sell users attention to advertisers (Lanier says ‘manipulators’) and the platforms deploy ever evolving algorithms that serve up content shown to enhance ‘engagement’.

The algorithm

What was not foreseen, but is now well understood, is that the algorithms soon learned that serving up individually tailored, controversial, emotional and negative content not only enhanced engagement, but turned us all into self-obsessed assholes, at the same time undermining truth, empathy and happiness (among other things). The details of all this can be found in Lanier’s book. Furthermore, it was not only this Unforeseen Disaster that has led to these problems, we also see Gaming the System on the part of content creators (eg Media hacks) and subversive elements (eg Russian trolls)

Lanier’s arguments for deleting all social media boil down to the following list of negative effects that the BUMMER business model has on individuals and society.

  1. We’re losing free will
  2. We must resist the insanity of our times
  3. We’re becoming assholes
  4. We’re losing truth
  5. What we say is becoming meaningless
  6. We’re losing our empathy
  7. We’re becoming unhappy
  8. We’re losing economic dignity
  9. Politics is becoming impossible
  10. We’re losing our special personhood

One example Lanier gives is the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement (the first time around), which was facilitated by the internet and social media. So far so good. But then the algorithms determined that there was a subgroup of white, right-leaning, American nationalists who engaged tremendously with the platform whenever they were served BLM content. No doubt this is how future civil wars begin.

Lanier even gives the example of social media’s causal role in the malignant growth of the antivax movement. A perverse effect of the BUMMER algorithms is not only do they serve up antivax material because it pushes the right (or wrong!) buttons for various people, but then online marketplaces like Amazon will serve up antivax book suggestions because the user has been reading antivax material! This digital perpetual engine drives resoundingly crackpot content onto the bestseller list. Lanier puts it plainly in ’10 Arguments’ when he states that ‘BUMMER kills’. It literally does.

Which brings us to COVID-19.

The asshole

Donald Trump (the asshole of this story), having evolved into even more of an asshole through his literal addiction to Twitter and its empathy destroying asshole-o-genic psychological impacts, proceeded to divide the United States (and therefore the world) on almost every issue to do with COVID-19. Amplification of this messaging by social media algorithms, which served each item to those most likely to be pissed off by it, and by media outlets who created content most likely to piss everyone off (they know how they algorithms work and want their hits), consolidated the in-group/out-group psychology of left and right. Suddenly, a million people are dead worldwide in part because angry Trumpers (or Bolsonaros, or ‘Sovereign Individual’ Australians) won’t wear masks or stay home (nor sacrifice anything of relatively minor import in the interests of public health).

Remember the GHSI, I mentioned at the outset, used for scoring health security? Well the USA topped the index with 83.5/100. Ironic, I know.

The virus

In an article published by Sawyer Crosby (and others) on the ‘Think Global Health’ website, the authors ridicule the GHSI. They basically argue that we clearly have no understanding of how to measure health security if there is demonstrably no correlation between GHSI scores and COVID-19 outcomes (in fact, as at 31 July 2020, there was a correlation, and the GHSI was positively correlated with COVID-19 death per capita – at first glance it literally couldn’t get much worse for valid measurement).

However, any attempt to rank COVID-19 responses is surely premature. In the first instance, we don’t actually know how many cases there are globally (we do know there are at least 5 million in the USA!) An MIT study indicates that there are probably more than 100 million cases worldwide. This means that present estimates such as those compiled by worldometer are out by an order of magnitude due to undercount. Many countries are simply unable to count their cases as noted by this article in the Guardian. The flip side of a low GHSI score is that the country most likely has a low capacity for situation awareness as the pandemic hits (hence reports ‘low cases’).

However, I reiterate, we know for sure that nearly 200,000 US citizens have died. Other reasons why we can’t yet know which countries are doing well include:

  • COVID-19 ‘success’ will depend on the strategy chosen by each country (eg, exclusion, elimination, suppression, or mitigation)
  • countries impacted later can learn from those impacted earlier
  • the pandemic is still accelerating
  • countries that have done well so far may yet be overwhelmed
  • countries performing ‘poorly’ at one point in time may yet look successful in the future, eg, if they develop vaccines and roll out vaccination quickly

So, do we know how to measure (and therefore construct) global health security? Yes. But building the boat and sewing the sails and taming the wind will not get us anywhere if social media is telling people to jump overboard.

Let me be clear. No one invented social media with the intent of throwing people overboard, but the interaction of the algorithms, the assholes and the virus have almost certainly amplified the number of deaths in the United States and likely elsewhere. And those with an interest in a weakened USA are likely fanning the flames. We don’t know yet if the literal attacks on public health professionals in the US, as described in the Journal of the American Medical Association, were incited by domestic division, or Russian bot armies.

The USA should have been the country best positioned to deal with COVID-19 effectively and safely. Yet social media platforms have hijacked our cognitive biases, produced a general decline in civility in political discourse, and hardened value conflicts. Look at this figure which contrasts a simulation where a group of people with disparate opinions interact (on the left) to form an agreed opinion, with a simulation (on the right) where algorithmic bias feeds content similar to already held beliefs to the individuals. The result in the presence of algorithmic bias, is a persisting dichotomy of opinion (study available here).

We know that people follow public health guidance when they believe that officials understand the public’s values and that ‘people like me’ can help make decisions. When everyone scrolls through a highly individualised social media feed, there is no such thing as ‘people like me’.

In attempting to attain health security we have not adequately accounted for social media and the machinations of BUMMER. We did not consider that people might drink bleach because the president suggested so. We have tried to include measures of ‘political stability’ in the calculus of health security, but we did not consider the supreme assholery of ‘sovereign individuals’.

The future

In the big picture, COVID-19 is minor blip. The world will go on. But if there ever was a truly existential threat, a devastating bioweapon unleashed across the globe that required everyone to take action to ensure planetary safety, then under the current regimen we are screwed. We need a mechanism for coordinating or it will be the end of us. BUMMER must end. Health security must demand it. We need a period of wisdom and coordination to prepare for the greatest of threats. The alternative is that social media explains the Fermi Paradox.

Policy Quarterly Journal: Focus on COVID-19 and New Zealand

The Victoria University of Wellington policy journal Policy Quarterly has just published a theme issue examining COVID-19 and the New Zealand context.

Articles cover: government, law, globalisation, health, lockdown, the economy and much more.

Included is a paper on ‘Public Health Aspects of the Covid-19 Response and Opportunities for the Post-Pandemic Era

In this paper (which I co-author), we argue that New Zealand’s health outcome appears to be the best in the OECD, but that some other countries made better use of certain control strategies. For example, Taiwan avoided an intense lockdown by focussing more strongly on immediate and intensive border control measures. Taiwan also excelled at using digital contact tracing and widespread use of face masks.

We suggest that in the post-pandemic era there are many emerging opportunities for society to be gained by embedding better plans for controlling future emerging diseases, and strengthening public health infrastructure.

Moving forward there is an opportunity to embed other important changes such as a ‘green reset’ and other pro-equity health interventions in system changes that will naturally follow the COVID-19 pandemic.

Worse than COVID-19: More can and must be done to prevent the greatest threats to human survival

Matt Boyd, Nick Wilson

Growing mushrooms: just one way to protect humanity in a period of reduced sunlight

“Governments routinely ignore seemingly far-out risks. Rocked by a global pandemic, they need to up their game” (The Economist, 27 June 2020).

It is not clear whether risks that threaten human extinction have received appropriate attention at the level of international governance. We systematically searched the documents of the UN Digital Library and concluded that they have not. Our results and commentary were recently published in the international journal Risk Analysis. In this blog we give an overview of existential risks, our findings and possible international and national solutions.

Existential risks

The COVID-19 pandemic is clearly a very serious global disaster, but there are threats much more dire than COVID-19. These include threats that have a long history of international attention, such as a US-Russia nuclear war, and also those that are new or less familiar such as technological risks including geoengineering or synthetic biology. In the extreme some large-scale global catastrophes could threaten human extinction. The following is a list of some plausible threats to human survival:

  1. Nuclear winter (the sun is obscured by soot from burning cities following a nuclear war)
  2. Artificial intelligence (AI; machines are developed in the future with goals that are not aligned to those of humanity and wreak havoc)
  3. Synthetic biology (engineering principles are used to produce dangerous biotechnology, including devastating bioweapons)
  4. Geoengineering (modification of the atmosphere or oceans to mitigate climate change goes wrong)
  5. Nanotechnology (nano-scale engineering creates a runaway process that degrades the environment)
  6. Asteroid/comet impacts (a large object(s) collides with the Earth causing mass extinction as with the dinosaurs)
  7. Supervolcanic eruption (massive volcanic eruption causes a decades long drop in Earth’s temperature)
  8. Experimental physics disaster (high-energy physics experiment creates a devastating physical process such as a black hole)

This list of existential risks is not exhaustive and others include: risks of catastrophe due to biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, societal collapse, solar storm, a flood basalt event, a close supernova/gamma-ray burst/magnetar explosion, or even attracting the attention of harmful extra-terrestrial intelligence. There are also as yet unknown risks.

Many of these threats are not stand-alone threats but could combine with other risks. We can imagine scenarios where AI is deployed to aid the development of dangerous biotechnology, or where a pandemic emerges in a period of low health security following a nuclear war or comet impact.

Active mitigation of extinction threats is justified by the perspective of long-termism, which is grounded in the vast expected value of future human lives and the common desire to preserve aspects of the “human project,” such as our intergenerational cultural, scientific, and technological endeavours.

Results from our analysis of the UN Digital Library

We examined the UN Digital Library for evidence of any general international discussion about risks that threaten human extinction and also for evidence of discussion of the eight specific existential threats listed above.

Our search for 22 synonyms of existential risk in the UN Digital Library returned 97 relevant mentions. Over two-thirds (69%) of these pertained to nuclear war. Climate change was the threat mentioned 24 times, however in these cases the context was often an existential threat to island states rather than humanity as a whole. There were a handful of references to existential threats in the context of general disarmament or weapons of mass destruction.

Strikingly, searches of the UN Digital Library revealed few if any other categories of existential risk raised in a manner that made the threat of human extinction salient.

UN documents that explicitly discuss human extinction have a limited focus

On the basis of the keyword search it appears that the UN has a long history of addressing the threat of nuclear war and has engaged with the threat from comets and near-Earth objects through the Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. These results seem to indicate a lack of attention paid to most existential risks.

Why is there little attention to existential risks?

There are clearly competing demands on national and international policymakers. Immediate threats such as regional conflict, trade, poverty, local health and education issues, as well as environmental concerns, weigh heavily and cannot be ignored. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the economic and human devastation that arises if low probability or infrequent but catastrophic hazards are ignored.

Mitigation of existential risk is a global public good. We’ve seen with climate change how large-scale cooperation is needed to counteract the tendency for markets to undersupply such goods.

It is also the case that international policymakers are not well acquainted with considering human extinction. Theory and frameworks may be necessary to facilitate the right discussions. However, classification frameworks for severe global catastrophic risk scenarios now exist and can aid in exploring the interplay between many interacting critical systems.

Us humans are also subject to psychological biases that may prevent action. Time discounting means that we tend to prefer value now to in the future. This is unfortunate for future people and the intergenerational nature of the benefits of existential risk mitigation. Future people perhaps stand to benefit most, yet they lack a voice in present policy decisions. This needs to change and the rights of future generations could be enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights.

The very fact that humanity has not yet gone extinct might also lead to neglect of extinction threats. However, this would be a mistake. We may just have been lucky to date, and changes to our situation including new technological developments can shift the odds.

Some existential risks are new (such as AI and synthetic biology) and it may take time for them to filter through to political discussions. However, given the potentially long time-lag from substantial and wide-ranging discussion to effective mitigation, this does not mean that attention can be deferred.

International solutions

Early research on existential risks focused on the kinds of threats listed above as isolated exogenous events. However, these hazards cause harm because human societies are vulnerable to harm. Also, large scale risks are inextricably linked to governance failures, they are not merely challenges for governments to overcome. It is not clear that we are developing, deploying, or governing our technology with enough wisdom. This means that as well as implementing safeguards, we should also expect safety systems to fail and have a backup plan to mitigate the impact and survive these catastrophes if prevention fails (see below).

We are right to continue to be very concerned about nuclear war and major asteroid/comet impacts and should try much harder to prevent them. However, major Earth-impacts (although able to strike at any time) are extremely low probability events. Therefore, we ought to be more concerned over perhaps a five- to ten-year period, with developments in synthetic biology and AI. The power of these technologies is advancing rapidly, and we may need important norms and international regulations to prevent dangerous use by states, institutions or individuals.

There are four obvious things that member nations could lobby the UN to do:

  1. Ensure that relevant bodies exist at the UN, similar to the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (nuclear weapons), or the Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (asteroid/comet impacts), to study and effect mitigation, and to coordinate the response to each specific risk.
  2. Ensure there is an overarching body on existential risk across these committees that addresses existential risk as a category and focuses on vulnerabilities and resilience, rather than any single particular risks. This is important because the probability, magnitude and tractability of each threat vary, and resource allocation must be prioritised. By taking an approach across a portfolio of risks, and working on quantitative risk assessments, which account for hazards and vulnerabilities, this body would then be able to recommend which risks justify greater or lesser immediate resources.
  3. Enshrine the rights of future generations: the UN Human Rights Council might consider options for approaching the rights of future generations. Any such rights, should they be deemed relevant and possibly enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, could have a significant effect in guiding mitigation action across UN member nations.
  4. Develop a convention against omnicide, and any technology that could facilitate omnicide (such as possession of more than 100 nuclear weapons, possession of particular types of bioweapons, development of environmentally devouring nanomaterials, human germline manipulations causing sterilization, and so on).

National solutions

Given the immense consequences of existential threats, international governance should clearly expend some resources to study how to prevent and mitigate these threats. However, organisations such as the UN arguably have a chequered record of responding to crises. Also, some existential threats may not require a global response. Therefore, national governments, communities and individuals should all do what they can to help mitigate the threat (eg, the US Government unilaterally invests in asteroid detection).

At the level of national government, dedicated departments can study and monitor a portfolio of catastrophic risk, allocating resources to those threats with the largest expected impact (on the basis of probability, magnitude, tractability and neglectedness). In February 2020 we published a paper on AI that discusses this approach, in the context of New Zealand.

Prevention, resilience and recovery

Government action should address prevention, resilience and recovery. Prevention might include multilateral disarmament negotiations, revisions to the International Health Regulations to ensure the world is prepared for a catastrophic pandemic, and regulation and oversight to ensure the safety of technologies such as AI, nanotechnology, geoengineering, and synthetic biology. Prevention might require very rapid action at the time of catastrophe. With COVID-19, New Zealand had the luxury of learning from other nations and imposed border controls just in time. Future catastrophe could strike a country like New Zealand first, and so rehearsal, simulation, and walk throughs of key actions are needed ahead of time.

Resilience could include economic preparedness. In the case of New Zealand, the Earthquake Commission model could be enhanced and extended to all catastrophic threats. An investment of 0.5% of GDP per annum could provide in the order of NZ$100 billion per generation to deal with unprecedented catastrophe and could have been accessed for the COVID-19 recovery. Pandemic reinsurance products briefly existed. These married superannuation funds (which save on pay-outs when there is a lot of death) with businesses (which suffer losses during pandemics). However, these no-brainer products were not popular with businesses that clearly felt pandemic insurance was not needed – but such thinking may now be changing. Many other creative ways to fund catastrophe may exist.

Resilience can also be built at the level of individuals, communities, and local governments. Researching and implementing strategies to help individuals and towns ensure food production in a world with a period of reduced sunlight would provide resilience against nuclear winter, supervolcanic eruption and asteroid/comet impact.

Recovery might hinge on some region or population avoiding a global catastrophe and being well-positioned to re-seed the Earth with people, technology and know-how. Partitioning the population to escape a catastrophic pandemic or facilitating survival in islands geographically most likely to endure a period of reduced sunlight could help. International law might need to be addressed. For example, the International Health Regulations actively deter restrictions to travel and trade to combat pandemic disease. This may need to change to empower island nations to close their borders and provide a reservoir of human capital and technological know-how to rebuild civilisation after a catastrophe.

Summary

Existential risks appear neglected by international governance. COVID-19 shows that we must invest time and resources to understand large scale risks. We must also begin preparations to mitigate the most general effects of these threats. This includes implementing appropriate oversight and safety engineering of potentially dangerous technology, building resilience to survive a world with a period of reduced sunlight, and planning to partition humanity so that risks cannot spread to every last grouping of humans.

We risk being limited by our naïvety of many complex processes and may require new methodology and cross-disciplinary work to evaluate these threats. Governments would do well to begin by bringing the full range of domain experts to the table.

Further Reading

  1. Boyd M, Wilson N. Existential Risks to Humanity Should Concern International Policymakers and More Could Be Done in Considering Them at the International Governance Level. Risk Analysis. 2020; online first, doi: 10.1111/risa.13566.
  2. Boyd M, Wilson N. Existential Risks: New Zealand needs a method to agree on a value framework and how to quantify future lives at risk. Policy Quarterly. 2018;14(3):58–65.
  3. Ord T. The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity: Bloomsbury; 2020.
  4. Cotton-Barratt O, Daniel M, Sandberg A. Defence in Depth Against Human Extinction: Prevention, Response, Resilience, and Why They All Matter. Global Policy. 2020: doi: 10.1111/758-5899.12786.