No More Pandemics: a lobbying group?

post by Sanjay · 2020-10-02T20:40:37.731Z · EA · GW · 22 comments


  The concept in a nutshell
  What do biosecurity experts think of the idea?
  How would it actually work?
  Task Y
  Could this project do harm?
  What has been done thus far?
  What would next steps be?
  Why pandemics? (using the I-T-N framework)
  Why pandemics? (as opposed to other topics)
  What sort of policy asks could the group make?
  Appendix: Summary of comments from biosecurity orgs
  Appendix: Attention hazards
  Appendix: Targeted, urgent longtermism, patient longtermism, and Task Y

The concept in a nutshell

There are currently grassroots movements for activists who want to tackle climate change/animal suffering/etc.

However, despite the current salience and vividness of pandemics, no civil society (or “grassroots”) movement around the importance of future pandemics appears to exist.

This write-up is intended as a request for feedback on an early-stage idea: to spawn such a group. In particular, I’m interested to know:

This is still at the ideas stage.

What do biosecurity experts think of the idea?

I have had informal discussions with several biosecurity experts, including leaders at organisations funded by Open Philanthropy and other academics.

Several were extremely enthusiastic.

Indeed, to give credit where it’s due, the idea came from one of them, not from me.

People in one organisation were very cautious, with caution around (among other things) attention hazards. I’ve created an appendix around attention hazards and another appendix which lists responses from different biosecurity groups.

How would it actually work?

The concept is new and this is intended more as a consultation than a carefully set out plan.

However inspiration can be drawn from existing organisations.

I have some experience of this sort of volunteering: I have done a small amount of volunteering with Results UK and Amnesty, and have heard about The Humane League’s action parties and Fast Action Network. A typical model for such groups involves volunteers coming to events to hear updates, and then they are given relatively easy-to-implement tasks to express their activism. This could include writing letters (which could be as easy as picking up a pre-written letter, signing your own name at the bottom, and posting it), spreading petitions, talking to local politicians, talking to the press, etc. Results UK appears able to have an impact on policy with a smallish (~100) group of volunteers spread across the UK.

An important task is working out which policy asks to focus on and when and how to ask them. This research work is typically done by staff in existing organisations (like Results UK and Amnesty). The No More Pandemics lobbying group would likely also need this to be done by staff (or possibly by dedicated volunteers at first) as it would involve liaising closely with biosecurity experts.

While I haven’t nailed down a precise picture of what this group would look like, I’m more inclined towards a few hundred citizens writing to their representatives with the support of a small staff team (as opposed to, say, hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets). This is partly because of the concerns about attention hazards (see appendix). It’s also because it’s easier to keep the policy asks sophisticated, which I suspect is what we need.

Note that I have used the term “grassroots” in this write-up. Some people have very specific connotations for this term, but all I have in mind is “anyone other than a biosecurity expert”.

Another note on terminology: if someone creates a bioweapon and the pathogen spreads around the world, I would refer to this as a pandemic (I think some might argue that pandemics are only pandemics if they are natural).

Note that there are campaigning groups who focus on other topics who are drawing on the links between their cause area and pandemics. E.g. campaigners interested in factory farming, climate change, conservation all have some common cause with those worried about pandemics. However their asks are likely to be the asks that are relevant to their cause area, meaning that the policy asks biosecurity experts are interested in would be ignored (see, e.g., the policy asks section below).

Task Y

More on the Task Y concept can be found here [EA · GW]. The purpose of this piece is not to discuss the Task Y concept in any depth, however to the extent that this idea is potentially useful, it may be relevant here. You do not need to understand this in order to appreciate the rest of this post.

Could this project do harm?

My impression is that this project involves risks that could be managed if run carefully. (See appendix on attention hazards)

If this project was arranged in close conversation with experts, it could actually reduce risk, because it may pre-empt the formation of another group (who isn’t in touch with experts).

However part of the aim of writing this post is to explore this question.

What has been done thus far?

What I have done

What others have done

I’m focusing here on “grassroots” people (i.e. “ordinary” citizens) asking their governments to keep them safe from future (not current) pandemics. There have also been plenty of interactions between expert groups and governments (e.g. some US groups such as Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Nuclear Threat Initiative have been speaking to their own government and international governments very intensively).

What would next steps be?

If there are signs that a small group of people are interested in being involved, then it would be worth investigating this further.

I imagine us going back to the biosecurity orgs who are interested and probing further on:

Once there has been enough thinking to give us confidence that the benefits outweigh the risks sufficiently, other steps include:

Why pandemics? (using the I-T-N framework)

Having considered several things under the ITN framework (Importance, Tractability, Neglectedness) I’ve found it to be exceedingly rare that something scores highly under all three criteria. However this appears (perhaps?) to apply for grassroots lobbying on the topic of pandemics.

Tackling pandemic risk is likely to be politically tractable

Grassroots lobbying on the topic is neglected

Importance: Biological risks (including man made bio risks) have a relatively high probability of causing extreme catastrophes, including existential risks.

The above table is from Toby Ord’s book The Precipice. While I don’t advise treating these numbers as totally solid, a key claim is that the probability of a pandemic causing an extreme event is relatively high for the following reasons:

I became more convinced of the value of tackling biological risks as a result of the work done for SoGive (an organisation I founded which does charity analysis to support donors). More on this can be found here.

Although I do believe that tackling biorisks is a high-impact area of work, I think it’s very rare for all three of those areas to be rated positively -- sufficiently rare that scepticism is in order. (Is it really true that the topic is tractable in light of COVID, but wouldn’t have happened without lobbying?) Having said that, there is enough of a case to be made in favour of tackling pandemics that I think it should at least be considered as a top area for grassroots lobbyists to work on.

Why pandemics? (as opposed to other topics)

It seems plain that potentially existential risks are clearly the most important ones under certain longtermist views, and are still very good things to work on under most other views. You can find more on this topic in an appendix.

I now run through some other topics that are relevant from a longtermist lens.

AI risk:

Climate change:

Nuclear war:

Natural risks (e.g. asteroids of supervolcanoes):

General longtermism:

What sort of policy asks could the group make?

I list here several potential policy asks, without trying to assess each one carefully. The intent is to demonstrate that there *are* several promising-sounding asks, not to suggest that these are the best.

Appendix: Summary of comments from biosecurity orgs

I have raised this discussion with a number of biosecurity organisations, typically as an add-on in a meeting on another topic (i.e. typically not in any depth).

I summarise here my impression of their opinion on the idea. I have anonymised their comments, because I didn’t ask them if they were willing to be quoted on this in the public domain.

Most (but not all) of the organisations quoted here are either funded by Open Phil, or recommended by Founders Pledge or SoGive, or otherwise EA-adjacent. Most of the individuals that I spoke to had leadership roles within their organisation.

Nobody appeared to think that another group was already doing something in this space.

With none of these organisations did I discuss exactly what this campaigning group would look like. I didn’t want to have an in-depth conversation about it with them before I know that there are some people who are interested in being involved.

Appendix: Attention hazards

Attention hazards refer to the risk that more public awareness of biorisks could encourage or enable malicious actors to use or develop harmful biotech. (The language has a parallel with the term “info hazards”)

However greater attention has potential benefits too.

Biorisk organisations appear to believe that the benefits can outweigh the hazards, as evinced by the facts that:

Indeed, it is plausible that starting such a group could help mitigate information hazards

Importantly, the *type* of lobbying group matters.

In order to give attention hazards a bit more thought, I considered how different sources of bio risk will be affected by more attention/public awareness. Note that I have given this a fairly cursory level of consideration, however my thoughts are below.

It is possible to disagree with the assessments that I made in the table above.

Appendix: Targeted, urgent longtermism, patient longtermism, and Task Y

A recent 80,000 hours podcast sets out the following types of longtermism:

  1. Patient longtermism
  2. Broad urgent longtermism
  3. Targeted urgent longtermism focused on existential risks
  4. Targeted urgent longtermism focused on other trajectory changes

The No More Pandemics campaigning concept is most compelling for those inspired by type 3 longtermism (bold and underlined above).

It’s also reasonable to argue that this project could contribute to patient longtermism as well. One might believe this if you thought this project was a candidate for “Task Y [EA · GW]”. In other words, involving people in this project could

Hence you may believe this to be a high-impact project from a movement building perspective.

The links to the other two types of longtermism are more tenuous.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by HowieL · 2020-10-03T12:27:42.248Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Lobbying v. grassroots advocacy

This is just semantic but I think you probably don't want to call what you're proposing a "lobbying group." Lobbying usually refers to one particular form of advocacy (face to face meetings with legislators) and in many countries[1] it is regulated more heavily than other forms of advocacy.

(It's possible that in the UK, "lobbying group" means something more general but in the U.S.)

[1] This is true in the U.S., which I know best. Wikipedia suggests it's true in the EU but appears less true in the UK.

Who else is working on this?

Here are a couple small examples of things being done along these lines, though I agree there is little overall:

-Resolve to Save Lives claims to do some advocacy for epidemic preparedness in low-income countries in collaboration with the Global Health Advocacy Incubator. The latter group seems to be hiring an Advocacy Director though the posting is old so I wouldn't be surprised if it's out of date.

-PATH has done some advocacy to encourage the U.S. government to invest in global health security.

Replies from: Sanjay, RayTaylor
comment by Sanjay · 2020-10-03T20:37:55.124Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is very useful, thank you!

comment by RayTaylor · 2020-10-08T08:52:54.449Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes lobbying prevents charity / nonprofit registration in the USA, but advocacy doesn't.

comment by Daniel_Eth · 2020-10-03T19:41:35.731Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Seems like it could be a good idea if implemented well. A couple considerations come to mind:

• I think it's possible for something like this to inadvertently cause harm by pushing policies that are good for combatting natural pandemics but also increase the chances of/potential severity of engineered pandemics. Should be avoidable if the leaders of the group are in communication with experts that focus on engineered pandemics.

• I'd strongly recommend engaging with people who do political polling (such as people who work at Data for Progress) when deciding political priorities. Pushing policies that are popular is presumably much more tractable than pushing those that are not, and pollsters could help you determine which policies fit into which category.

Replies from: Sanjay, ChristianKleineidam
comment by Sanjay · 2020-10-03T20:38:14.106Z · EA(p) · GW(p)


comment by ChristianKleineidam · 2020-12-30T14:58:04.595Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Pushing policies that are popular is presumably much more tractable than pushing those that are not

If you push a huge bill for increased biosafety it's okay when there are policies included that don't poll well but for which you can convince legislators with good arguments. Especially when there's no lobby against the policy and it's unlikely that the issue will become the subject of public debate. 

comment by jared_m · 2020-10-05T22:41:18.080Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Strong upvote. This all seems very well-reasoned. As someone who has worked in political organizing-adjacent roles in the US for most of 2010 - 2020 I think there is an opportunity to have an outsized impact by doing this well, and you've cogently outlined a way to do this well that I think would translate well to bipartisan federal advocacy in the US. I'd be happy to brainstorm more at some point, too.

comment by --alex-- · 2020-10-05T15:59:32.670Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Excellent idea!

The problem seems to be our recent successes with Ebola, SARS, MERS and H1N1 lulled us into a false sense of security. The main risk of under-reacting to a future pandemic is probably a couple of generations out.

How do you build a “No More Pandemics” movement today that will still be seen as relevant after most of us are gone?

Annual events and permanent monuments such as Remembrance Day, the Vietnam War Memorial and Holocaust Memorials can remind future generations of the horrors of the past. But would a "No More Pandemics" day or monuments to the lives lost be enough to convince future generations to question their own false sense of security?

Replies from: Sanjay
comment by Sanjay · 2020-10-05T16:48:47.155Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you!

How long until the world risks under-reacting to a pandemic?

There's an uncertainty over how long we'll remain well-prepared for a future pandemic. For example, this study (conducted by my organisation SoGive) surveyed some biorisk orgs. To see the answers, I suggest looking at this comment [EA(p) · GW(p)], and reviewing the answers to the first question:

"Do you think that the world will handle future pandemics and bio risks better as a result of having gone through the current coronavirus pandemic?"

As can be seen, there were several pessimistic answers. I think we should expect there to be some selection effects and biases in these answers, but the concerns around overindexing do strike me as reasonable.

In any case, I agree that a lasting impact sounds valuable.

How to have a lasting impact?

Some of the policy proposals [EA · GW] are designed to have a longer-term impact. For example, strengthening the BWC would hopefully last some decades (assuming that institutional inertia has the effect I'm hoping for, although I'm unclear how likely this is). Also, the funding commitment (similar to the 0.7% ODA commitment) is also intended to last a long time.

However it's far from clear that this would last for generations.

Your idea of remembrance days and memorials is really interesting, and something I hadn't thought of.

And it does strike me that the 1918 pandemic had huge societal impacts, but most of the world was oblivious to this pre-COVID.

Replies from: --alex--
comment by --alex-- · 2020-10-05T20:57:28.453Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Gradual changes in institutional norms and traditions in other domains can provide transferrable lessons. For example, economists and politicians handled the 2008 Financial Crisis far better than the 1930s Great Depression. Perhaps if they hadn't disregarded the lessons from the depression they could have prevented the financial crisis altogether. I've been reading Arguing with Zombies by Paul Krugman and the long-term challenges with "No More Pandemics" (great branding, btw) sound similar.

Scott Alexander nicely summarizes this tension between tradition and rationality in his review of Joseph Henrich's The Secret of Our Success :

Rationalists always wonder: how come people aren’t more rational? How come you can prove a thousand times, using Facts and Logic, that something is stupid, and yet people will still keep doing it?

Henrich hints at an answer: for basically all of history, using reason would get you killed.
comment by RayTaylor · 2021-02-14T17:34:19.465Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes interested, have messaged.

Another good model is EIA (Environmental Investigations Agency) and their very targeted policy and action work on HCFCs, which led to the ozone-depleting gas emissions being discovered in China recently.

I think World Bank, UNDP, UNICEF, WFP and IMF have a strong incentive to help prevent future pandemics, and they have much more money to deploy than WHO.

CMU Prof  Loh is working on this and has a project: 

comment by Linch · 2020-10-12T19:38:21.192Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I've been enjoying reading the history of Wu Lien-Teh.* This is really getting into the weeds here, but if we want anti-pandemic political group with a longtermist focus, I think it would be really great to have a historical tie in with the great pioneers of the past (and, unfortunately, present) who fought the good fight against pandemics.

*Side note: If anybody can get me access to his autobiography for less than $100 in the US, I'd really appreciate it; I already tried contacting the Wu Lien-Teh society.

Replies from: Sanjay
comment by Sanjay · 2020-10-12T20:51:42.838Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Cool, I'd never heard of him, thanks!

comment by Denkenberger · 2020-10-08T18:35:52.635Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sounds very promising.

Nuclear war:
Already has lots of activism happening (e.g. CND)
Less likely to cause severe (extinction-level) catastrophes than bio risks

I would agree that there is a lot of activism on preventing nuclear war and reducing arsenals, but there is not much on having backup plans.

I agree that the existential threat from engineered pandemics is probably greater than nuclear war, but the existential threat from natural pandemics is probably less than nuclear war.

Replies from: Sanjay
comment by Sanjay · 2020-10-09T08:04:18.408Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Allfed's work is very exciting, and I hope you all do great things and ensure we are all kept safe.

My intuition says that the No More Pandemics concept would resonate more with the voting population (and, perhaps as important, would seem to the typical political representative to resonate more with the voting population) than a backup plan concept. But I could be persuaded otherwise.

comment by RayTaylor · 2020-10-08T08:57:37.455Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Excellent post, and the timing is great!

It may be possible to support good work by WHO and others with PR as well as cash, highlighting work they do in smaller countries where pandemics could start (Laos, Liberia, LA!)

There must be specific aspects of pandemic prevention which are neglected in some places, and a nonprofit or campaigning group could make the difference?

I can imagine donations/legacies from many who died or were affected by COVID-19, so there's no time to lose!

The growth of could be a model? My first step was to find an author who wrote a book, and ALSO wanted things to happen, but you could equally pick a report from WHO or Gates or Michael Minha?

This journal could be useful:

comment by Matt_Lerner (mattlerner) · 2020-10-04T16:02:47.784Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The venue of advocacy here will depend at least in part on the policies you decide are worth advocating. Even with hundreds of grassroots volunteers, it will be hard to ensure the fidelity of the message you are trying to communicate. It is hard at first blush to imagine how greater attention to pandemic preparedness could do harm, but it is not difficult that simply exhorting government to "do something" could have bad consequences.

Given the situation, it seems likely that governments preparing for future pandemics without clear guidance will prepare for a repeat of the pandemic that is already happening, rather than a different and worse one in future.

Once you select certain highly effective policy worth advocating (for example, an outbreak contingency fund), that's the stage at which to determine the venue and the tactic. I'm not a bio expert, but it's not difficult to imagine that once you identify a roster of potential policies, the most effective in expectation may involve, for example, lobbying Heathrow Airport Holdings or the Greater London Authority rather than Parliament.

Replies from: Sanjay
comment by Sanjay · 2020-10-04T21:35:17.804Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks Matt, this is very much appreciated.

I agree that exhorting government to just "do something" sounds clearly suboptimal, and possibly unhelpful.

Using the initial steps that I've taken thus far as a model, it's involved speaking to existing biosecurity experts closely to work out precisely what to ask for (a process which is still ongoing).

Considering exactly who is the right group to lobby does indeed make sense, thank you for raising this.

comment by ChristianKleineidam · 2020-12-30T15:28:04.090Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Whether or not the Wuhan Institute of Virology really was the cause of the  COVID-19 outbreak, it's a possible scenario that a lab that's focused on researching potential future pandemics has a security breach and accdiently starts a pandemic. 

When doing outreach it's worth to keep those risks in mind and hopefully focus on interventions that don't increase accidental risk. 

There are technologies such as CISPER that both make it easier to delibrately start pandemics and that also give us tools for fighting future pandemics. 

Asking experts that did research into what policy might be effective is likely import to get good results. 

comment by Becky_montacute · 2020-12-29T20:51:05.958Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is I think a really good idea - just to add to your areas for work, I think it will be really important for organisations to keep an eye on/be critical of the inevitable inquiry into the UK's response to the pandemic, and make sure that it doesn't focus solely on improvements to deal with this specific type of pathogen, but looks more broadly at what needs to be done to improve the UK's response regardless of which type of pathogen is the next challenge - which probably won't be another coronavirus. The recommendations from the inquiry (if done well) can also then help give you a basis for asks to work on going forwards.

comment by vaniver · 2020-10-09T01:25:04.130Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Now that the world has experienced COVID-19, everyone understands that pandemics could be bad

I found it somewhat surprising how quickly the pandemic was polarized politically; I am curious whether you expect this group to be partisan, and whether that would be a positive or negative factor.

[A related historical question: what were the political party memberships of members of environmental groups in the US across time? I would vaguely suspect that it started off more even than it is today.]

Replies from: Sanjay
comment by Sanjay · 2020-10-09T07:58:59.748Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

As far as I'm aware (and it might be worth finding/doing some research to verify this?)

  • The *response* to the pandemic is politicised, and more so in the US than elsewhere (or at least more so than the UK, and probably elsewhere too)
  • The view that pandemics are bad and we should prevent them if we can has bilateral support
  • Hence I think it's probably more straightforward for this group to be on the side of defeating pandemics, and not take sides politically

However that's lots that I don't know about politics, esp in the US, so if someone knows more than me about this I'm happy to hear alternative views.