#118 – Jaime Yassif on safeguarding bioscience to prevent catastrophic lab accidents and bioweapons development
If a rich country were really committed to pursuing an active biological weapons program, there’s not much we could do to stop them. With enough money and persistence, they’d be able to buy equipment, and hire people to carry out the work.
But what we can do is intervene before they make that decision.
Today’s guest, Jaime Yassif — Senior Fellow for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) — thinks that stopping states from wanting to pursue dangerous bioscience in the first place is one of our key lines of defence against global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs).
Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.
It helps to understand why countries might consider developing biological weapons. Jaime says there are three main possible reasons:
1. Fear of what their adversary might be up to
2. Belief that they could gain a tactical or strategic advantage, with limited risk of getting caught
3. Belief that even if they are caught, they are unlikely to be held accountable
In response, Jaime has developed a three-part recipe to create systems robust enough to meaningfully change the cost-benefit calculation.
The first is to substantially increase transparency. If countries aren’t confident about what their neighbours or adversaries are actually up to, misperceptions could lead to arms races that neither side desires. But if you know with confidence that no one around you is pursuing a biological weapons programme, you won’t feel motivated to pursue one yourself.
The second is to strengthen the capabilities of the United Nations’ system to
investigate the origins of high-consequence biological events — whether naturally emerging, accidental or deliberate — and to make sure that the responsibility to figure out the source of bio-events of unknown origin doesn’t fall between the cracks of different existing mechanisms. The ability to quickly discover the source of emerging pandemics is important both for responding to them in real time and for deterring future bioweapons development or use.
And the third is meaningful accountability. States need to know that the consequences for getting caught in a deliberate attack are severe enough to make it a net negative in expectation to go down this road in the first place.
But having a good plan and actually implementing it are two very different things, and today’s episode focuses heavily on the practical steps we should be taking to influence both governments and international organisations, like the WHO and UN — and to help them maximise their effectiveness in guarding against catastrophic biological risks.
Jaime and Rob explore NTI’s current proposed plan for reducing global catastrophic biological risks, and discuss:
• The importance of reducing emerging biological risks associated with rapid technology advances
• How we can make it a lot harder for anyone to deliberately or accidentally produce or release a really dangerous pathogen
• The importance of having multiples theories of risk reduction
• Why Jaime’s more focused on prevention than response
• The history of the Biological Weapons Convention
• Jaime’s disagreements with the effective altruism community
• And much more
And if you might be interested in dedicating your career to reducing GCBRs, stick around to the end of the episode to get Jaime’s advice — including on how people outside of the US can best contribute, and how to compare career opportunities in academia vs think tanks, and nonprofits vs national governments vs international orgs.
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Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ryan Kessler
Transcriptions: Katy Moore