Preventing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks

Preventing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks

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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.

Exercise Summary

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.

Report Recommendations

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.


  • A United Nations agency or credible non-governmental institution should partner with experts from the scientific, philanthropic, security, and public health sectors to create an international entity dedicated to identifying and reducing emerging biological risks associated with technology advances and to reducing global variations in oversight for dual-use life science research.
  • Research organizations should require and provide incentives to those whom they fund to identify and reduce the risk of accidental or deliberate misuse in the design, conduct, and sharing of life science research and biotechnology.

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.


  • International organizations, national governments, academia, and the private sector should develop and implement a variety of enhanced transparency measures to reduce the risk of misperceptions about the capabilities and intentions of bioscience research and development activities in countries around the world. These measures could include written reports, scientific exchanges, site visits, and research exchanges.

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.


  • The international community should develop a new Joint Assessment Mechanism to enable a rapid-reaction multinational team to determine the source of a high-consequence biological event of unknown origin. This mechanism would address cases where there is ambiguity about the source of a biological event—specifically, whether it emerged naturally or was deliberately or accidentally released from an academic, commercial, or government laboratory.
  • The Office of the UN Secretary-General should designate a permanent facilitator or unit to develop the capacity for and lead a coordinated, multi-sectoral response to 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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