Jaime M. Yassif, Ph.D.
Vice President, Global Biological Policy and Programs
Preventing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks
In February 2020, during the Munich Security Conference, NTI | bio convened senior leaders from around the world for a scenario-based tabletop exercise designed to identify gaps in global capabilities to prevent and respond to high-consequence biological events. The exercise focused on two key goals: highlighting emerging biological risks associated with rapid technology advances and discussing governance measures to reduce these risks; and examining current and proposed new mechanisms for preventing, deterring, and responding to the development of biological weapons by sophisticated actors, such as states.
This report, Preventing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks: Lessons and Recommendations from a Tabletop Exercise held at the 2020 Munich Security Conference, written by Beth Cameron, Ph.D., Jaime Yassif, Ph.D., Jacob Jordan, Ph.D., and Jacob Eckles, M.P.H., summarizes the exercise scenario and discussion and includes recommendations from the organizers.
Participants were presented with a fictional scenario in which the world is confronting a disease outbreak involving a dangerous, apparently human-engineered pathogen that is suspected to have originated the fictional country Aplea, which has a rapidly growing biotechnology sector. Ultimately, an international investigation reveals that Aplea had been conducting illicit bioweapons research, and an accidental release from one of its laboratories is the source of the outbreak that eventually kills more than 50 million people worldwide.
The exercise exposed key gaps in international capabilities to prevent and respond to high-consequence biological events, and it revealed priorities for international cooperation to fill those gaps. The exercise also highlighted growing biological risks in an increasingly interconnected world and the possibility that future pandemics—particularly those caused by engineered or synthesized biological agents—could impose even more severe consequences than the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants determined that even as global leaders urgently respond to the global spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, they must consider bold changes to the international biosecurity architecture to prevent greater risks to the future of humanity.
Click here to learn more about the exercise and watch the videos that revealed each step in the scenario.
Following the exercise, organizers developed recommendations based on findings from the discussion among exercise participants. These are summarized below. (The full findings and recommendations are available on page 19 of the report.)
I. Reduce Biotechnology Risks and Implement Global Norms for Life Science Research
Finding: The accelerating development, global spread, and accessibility of bioscience and biotechnology have not been matched with the development of norms and governance mechanisms to manage associated risks of deliberate misuse or accidental release.
II. Enhance Transparency to Build Trust and Reduce Uncertainty
Finding: The international community lacks robust transparency measures—and related systems of trust—to clarify the intentions and capabilities of bioscience research and development being conducted across the globe.
III. Develop Capacity to Rapidly Investigate Biological Events of Unknown Origin
Finding: Internationally, there is a critical gap in capacity to rapidly investigate high-consequence biological events of unknown origin.
Click here to learn more about the launch of this report on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2020 and watch the event here.
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