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International Biosecurity and Biosafety Initiative for Science

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▲ Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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The International Biosecurity and Biosafety Initiative for Science (IBBIS) is a new international organization that works with key stakeholders around the world to develop practical tools and solutions for reducing risks — including global catastrophic risks — from bioscience and biotechnology. For its first major project, IBBIS is focusing on the international Common Mechanism for DNA synthesis screening, to facilitate screening for misuse of DNA synthesis technology.

As explained in our report on Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, rapid advances in the life sciences that have the potential to yield immense benefits for humanity may also create and exacerbate risks. These technologies are also proliferating rapidly, and costs have declined dramatically in recent years and are predicted to continue declining:

Cost of sequencing a human genome over time

Source: Author’s diagram using NHGRI data, 2026 Metaculus Forecast, and 2031 Metaculus Forecast (as of 28 June 2023). Plot generated in R with assistance from GPT4. See appendix for code.

DNA synthesis cost 'Carlson Curve'

Source: Data from Rob Carlson, “DNA Cost and Productivity Data” and Potomac Institute report (2018). Thanks to Max Langenkamp for initial analysis and key considerations here. Plot generated in R with assistance from GPT4.

For example, DNA synthesis — the creation of the building blocks of life on earth —is a key step in most legitimate biomedical research, but can also facilitate the creation of dangerous potential pandemic pathogens. To help prevent terrorist groups from creating and releasing such pandemic agents, stakeholders need to screen DNA synthesis, both the people ordering sequences and the danger posed by the sequences themselves, but no country requires DNA synthesis screening by law. Many responsible DNA synthesis providers voluntarily screen their orders, but other providers do not.

This is just one example of the kinds of problems that IBBIS will work on. As described in the videos below, IBBIS will seek to collaborate with governments, researchers, and private industry to tackle many other issues in biosafety and biosecurity:

IBBIS is “dedicated to strengthening global biosecurity norms and developing innovative tools and incentives to uphold them” to help prevent the next pandemic. As described in our report on biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, there are many such norms and tools, practical steps that countries, companies, international organizations, publishers, and other actors in the bioscience and biotechnology ecosystem can take to reduce catastrophic risks.

We believe that IBBIS is well-positioned to conduct this work. First, they were incubated by NTI | bio, another organization we recommend as a high-impact funding opportunity. Second, after interviewing experts and policymakers and reviewing IBBIS’s approach, we are confident that they will prioritize interventions that are likely to tackle the most extreme kinds of biological risks. In part, this is because of IBBIS’s leadership. Piers Millett was Deputy Head of the Implementation Support Unit for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), has consulted for the World Health Organization, was Vice President for Responsibility for iGEM Foundation (International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition), and is a Senior Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute. He has also authored and co-authored seminal work in the nascent field of GCBR mitigation, such as “Existential Risk and Cost-Effective Biosecurity.”

Because IBBIS is a new organization, we recommend unrestricted funding to help the organization launch successfully and fund its first three years of operations.

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