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Since the first coronavirus case was reported in Wuhan, China, on December 31, COVID-19 has rapidly spread across the world. As of March 18, 201,634 cases have been confirmed globally1 (although the real number is likely much higher) and 8,007 people have died. For the first time, the rest of the world has overtaken China in its total number of cases, with 80,000 confirmed inside the country and 87,000 reported elsewhere. With over 110 countries affected, Antarctica is the only continent that remains virus-free. A pandemic of this magnitude is new to all of us and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the constantly evolving data. But by coming together, we can fight back. Giving to high-impact organisations working to tackle the pandemic will better equip us in the battle to quash the disease.
Potential and hypothetical future crises may not always appear pressing, especially when so many of the world’s issues feel more tangible. But as the current pandemic shows, risks that seem strange and unlikely do happen, and preparedness and proactiveness are key. Last year, Founders Pledge published a research report on major global risks and how to mitigate them, noting that being prepared for pandemics -- both natural and engineered -- is important to humanity’s future2.
Were we prepared?
The current pandemic signals the importance of being prepared for new disease outbreaks. In the face of COVID-19, nations previously hit by the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, such as Taiwan and Singapore3, set an example to the rest of the world with their quick and effective responses, while other countries, like Italy and the US, are struggling to cope. Failure to test enough people quickly has hampered efforts to control the virus in some areas -- the US has failed to distribute testing equipment rapidly, causing it to trail behind other developed nations4. When it comes to pandemic preparedness, it seems the world has more to do.
Pandemics have consistently been the greatest source of mass death in our history; between a third and a half of Europeans were lost to the Black Death, and the Spanish flu of 1918-19205 killed 50-100 million people -- that’s more than died in World War I. A key problem is these pandemics are rare, so it’s easy for both governments and the public to ignore them as the threat they pose doesn’t feel imminent. But as COVID-19 shows, we as a species are still at risk from the sudden appearance of new diseases with pandemic potential. A booming population increases the likelihood of diseases jumping from animals to humans and a globalized society drives transmission once that leap has been made. And we’re not as prepared as we should be.
Unfortunately, our response has been very much reactive, particularly in countries like the US, giving the virus more opportunity to spread. In future, we need to be proactive so we are ready to combat new diseases and limit their spread before they reach pandemic status. And it’s not just naturally arising diseases we need to think about -- advancements in biotechnology mean that engineered pathogens also pose a threat. They could escape from labs, like the virus that led to the 2007 foot and mouth outbreak in the UK6, or be used as bioweapons by states or terrorists. It is also possible to alter pathogens to make them more dangerous to humans. For example, controversial experiments published in 2012 describe how to create a form of bird flu that can potentially pass from human to human7.
The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which became effective in 1975 and has over 100 signatories, prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons. However, the BWC has just four employees, and a smaller budget than the average McDonald’s, and various signatories haven’t abided by it. The Soviets worked on a bioweapons program long after signing the Convention, employing 9,000 people at its height8.
What we can do against the current pandemic, and how to reduce the risk of the next one
Biosecurity and pandemic preparedness has, until today, been a highly neglected area, with only a handful of philanthropists worldwide making it a priority. By supporting this cause area both now and in the future, you can not only help curb the current pandemic, but also reduce the risk of the next one. For the last 15 months, we have recommended two organisations working to reduce this risk: the Center for Health Security (CHS) at Johns Hopkins University and the Biosecurity Initiative at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford. You can donate to the CHS here, and to the Biosecurity Initiative here (see Notes for instructions). If you are not US-based but would like to donate to either organisation, contact the Founders Pledge team to discuss the most efficient way of donating from where you are.
The Biosecurity Initiative is a research centre at Stanford that carries out policy research and industry outreach to reduce the risk of natural and engineered pandemics. It has contributed world-leading research on emerging issues at the intersection of pandemic risk and biotechnology, and it aims to create a culture of safety and responsibility in the world of biotechnology research.
The CHS conducts research into biosecurity and advocates for better policy both in the US and internationally. Its work has led to significant changes in policy and it is a trusted source of advice to the US government. It is working to improve pandemic preparedness and diagnostic testing of infectious disease in the US. The CHS has been providing accurate information and regular updates as the situation unfolds. You can check out the Johns Hopkins interactive map of cases here.
Gates Philanthropy Partners have also opened a COVID-19 fund with the intention of quickly developing new vaccines, treatments, and diagnostic tools. It is split into two different funds that you can give to: the Combating COVID-19 Fund, which focuses on vaccines and diagnostics as well as protecting vulnerable people living in Africa and South Asia; and the Therapeutics Accelerator Fund, which is working to find a treatment against COVID-19, whether it be an entirely new drug or the repurposing of one already in use. You can donate to both funds here. Meanwhile, the Center for Global Development (CGD), which conducts rigorous economic research and influences policy, is now focusing its attention on the international COVID-19 response, both from health and economic perspectives. See their blog roll on COVID for coverage and policy ideas + outside idea generation/critique of the multilaterals. You can donate to the CGD here.
Now is a time to adhere to the advice of experts so that we can limit COVID-19’s spread and to learn from the situation so that we can be better prepared next time a pandemic hits. We need a better understanding of infectious disease, improved hygiene, advancements in diagnostics and treatments, better communication, and greater public health funding9. While pandemics pose a global catastrophic risk to humanity, humanity is in control of how we respond to them. This crisis serves as a wake-up call; this is our opportunity to change the course both of this pandemic and of those to come. By giving your support to high-impact organisations, you can help us achieve this crucial goal.
CHS and Biosecurity Initiative giving instructions:
To give to the CHS, click here. Select “Other (please specify)” and then type “FP-Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security” into the "Please describe" field that appears immediately below.
To give to the Biosecurity Initiative, click here. In the drop-down menus select “Centers, Institutes, and More” followed by “Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies” and type Biosecurity Initiative into the “Special Instructions/Other Designation” box.
Want to learn more?
• To learn more about pandemics and other global catastrophic risks, read Toby Ord’s The Precipice
• Read our existential risk report
• This excellent piece on coronavirus by Thomas Pueyo
(1) Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/ (accessed Mar 13, 2020).
(2) Existential Risk Executive Summary https://founderspledge.com/stories/existential-risk-executive-summary (accessed Mar 13, 2020).
(3) Wells, S. Singapore is the model for how to handle the coronavirus https://www.technologyreview.com/s/615353/singapore-is-the-model-for-how-to-handle-the-coronavirus/ (accessed Mar 13, 2020).
(4) Resnick, B. America’s shamefully slow coronavirus testing threatens all of us https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2020/3/12/21175034/coronavirus-covid-19-testing-usa (accessed Mar 13, 2020).
(5) Hatchett, R. J.; Mecher, C. E.; Lipsitch, M. Public Health Interventions and Epidemic Intensity during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 2007, 104 (18), 7582–7587. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0610941104..
(6) Coghlan, A. Faulty pipe blamed for UK foot and mouth outbreak https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn12615-faulty-pipe-blamed-for-uk-foot-and-mouth-outbreak/ (accessed Mar 17, 2020).
(7) Casadevall, A.; Imperiale, M. J. Risks and Benefits of Gain-of-Function Experiments with Pathogens of Pandemic Potential, Such as Influenza Virus: A Call for a Science-Based Discussion. mBio 2014, https://doi.org/10.1128/mBio.01730-14..
(8) Toby Ord on The Precipice and humanity’s potential futures https://80000hours.org/podcast/episodes/toby-ord-the-precipice-existential-risk-future-humanity/ (accessed Mar 13, 2020).
(9) Ord, T. Why We Need Worst-Case Thinking to Prevent Pandemics. The Guardian. March 6, 2020.