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SecureBio

An emergency hospital during the 1918 pandemic, the worst pandemic in recent history.

▲ Photo by Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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SecureBio is a nonprofit organization that seeks to use new technologies and policy advocacy to protect society against extreme biological risks. SecureBio explains its mission on its website as follows:

“SARS-CoV-2 has demonstrated that the world is profoundly vulnerable to biological threats. Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that future pandemics could be far worse. Due to rapid advances in biotechnology, the number of people able to create and release dangerous pathogens will quickly increase over the coming years. The world is unprepared for widespread access to such powerful technology. To defend ourselves against these dangers, we must begin preparation now. SecureBio's in-house team of researchers and technologists work with experts in academia, industry and government to develop new technologies and policy proposals to delay, detect, and defend against any catastrophic pandemic, whether natural or engineered.”


As explained in our new report on Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, the world is unprepared for the next pandemic. As quoted in that report, one senior policymaker who used to work on biological risks in the U.S. government summarized it bluntly in an anonymized interview for this report: “I just came away from that [i.e. government service on biosecurity] thinking, we're just completely fucked.”

For hundreds of years, naturally-arising pandemics have been a major threat to human civilization, but advances in bioscience and biotechnology appear likely to complicate the threat landscape, potentially leading to the proliferation of powerful new tools into the hands of malevolent actors. This leads to a threat that is:

  1. Growing — More and more people will have access to ever-more-powerful technologies that could enable the synthesis of potential pandemic pathogens.
  2. Increasingly complex — we won’t know what the next pandemic will look like.
  3. Adaptive — intelligent actors can change their strategies in response to specific risk-mitigation measures.

In the worst case, such threats could pose a risk to the continued existence of human civilization.

SecureBio is a new organization that builds on previous work of Professor Kevin Esvelt and seeks to tackle these threats using a strategy of “Delay, Detect, Defend,” which Esvelt outlines in a recent white paper recent white paper:

  • Delay – Take steps today to delay the proliferation of dangerous capabilities to potentially malevolent actors.
  • Detect – Create and deploy systems that can function as a reliable early warning system for catastrophic biological threats, allowing society to find even “stealth pandemics.”
  • Defend – Increase societal resilience to any threats that do occur.

We recommend SecureBio because of their strong focus on the most extreme possible events and Kevin Esvelt’s strengths as a security-minded scientist. Esvelt was the inventor of CRISPR-based gene drive and is a leader at the intersection of bioscience, security, and cryptography, among other fields (see, for example, his profile in the Vox “Future Perfect 50”)

As part of our investigation, we spoke to several experts and policymakers who confirmed this. Crucially, SecureBio satisfies all of the “impact multipliers” identified in our GCBR report, such as focusing on robustness to catastrophic events, being mindful of information hazards (see, e.g. Esvelt’s work here), and approaching solutions in a threat-agnostic manner. We would be especially excited to see SecureBio increase its policy advocacy work, and recommend unrestricted funding to help grow the team working on emerging challenges like the misuse of large language models.

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Notes

  1. NB, we expect to evaluate SecureDNA as a separate organization in 2024.

  2. Anonymized interview.