Charity Reports

Nuclear Threat Initiative’s biosecurity programs

Published on
2020-11-27
Written by
Aidan Goth
Stephen Clare

Nuclear Threat Initiative’s biosecurity programs

Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan global security organisation focused on reducing nuclear and biological threats imperiling humanity.

What problem are they trying to solve?

For most of human history, the greatest risk of mass fatalities has stemmed from pandemics. The poor health, deaths, and economic and political disruption caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shows the scale of damage that pandemics can cause. Compared to the worst pandemics in history, however, COVID-19 is relatively mild. In the 1300s, the Black Death plague outbreak killed 30-50% of the European population.1 The 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ killed 50 million to 100 million people,2 more people than died in World War One. These events are outliers, but history is punctuated by episodes of mass death from disease outbreaks.

Improvements in biotechnology will bring great gains for human health, enabling us to cure genetic diseases, create new vaccines, and make other important medical advances. However, biotechnology will also allow humans to modify the features of pathogens. For example, Figure 1 shows that the cost of gene synthesis has fallen by many orders of magnitude in recent years.

Figure 1.

BEC DNA Price 2017

Source: Carlson, On DNA and transistors.3

Cheaper and more accessible biotechnologies like gene synthesis could potentially greatly increase the probability of Global Catastrophic Biological Risks — global catastrophes involving biological agents.4 Researchers have, accidentally or otherwise, demonstrated the ability to design pathogens with dangerous new features.5

NTI drives systemic change that creates a safer world by galvanising large-scale institutional adoption of proven global security practices and programmes. Their institutional objectives address both nuclear and biological weapons6, but we are specifically recommending their work on risks from biological events, such as the outbreak of an engineered pandemic. Biological weapons pose a serious threat to humanity’s long-term future and we believe efforts to reduce this risk are relatively neglected.

What do they do?

NTI’s biosecurity team (abbreviated as “NTI | bio”) has four main approaches to reducing global catastrophic risks from biological events. These are:7

  1. Reducing the risk that a sophisticated person or group could misuse biotechnology to deliberately or accidentally cause catastrophic harm;
  2. Identifying and catalysing urgent actions and new solutions to prevent, investigate and rapidly respond to high-consequence biological events, including potential future events that are orders of magnitude more severe than the COVID-19 pandemic;
  3. Addressing the root causes of potential bioweapons development by powerful actors—including states and highly sophisticated non-state actors—and enhancing transparency among nations regarding dual use research risks; and
  4. Enhancing political will among government and private sector leaders to take actions that reduce the risk of a high-consequence or globally catastrophic biological event.

Why do we recommend them?

  • Open Philanthropy, our research partner, recommends NTI | bio as one of the highest-impact biosecurity organisations in the world.
  • NTI has a strong track record of reducing risks posed by other weapons, such as nuclear warheads, and so has relevant experience that make it well-placed to target risks posed by biological weapons.
  • NTI | bio, though less well-known than NTI’s nuclear security and arms control work, has completed several successful biosecurity projects.
  • NTI | bio intends to carry out a number of promising future projects, many of which are in need of funding.

Historically, NTI’s primary focus has been nuclear security and arms control. The organisation is responsible for several notable achievements in this space, including the launch of the World Institute for Nuclear Security8 and convening stakeholders from the US and Russia to develop proposals for future cooperation on nuclear security.9

Although NTI’s biosecurity work is newer, the organisation has completed several promising projects. These include:

  • Developing a way for non-governmental organisations to contribute to the Biological Weapons Convention Working Capital Fund. Since entering into force in 1975, the Biological Weapons Convention has shaped international efforts to ban the development, stockpiling and use of biological weapons.10 NTI’s work with the UN has helped increase the financial sustainability of the Convention by enabling some private donors to support its operating budget.11
  • Developing a new framework to support international efforts “to create a common, internationally supported mechanism for reducing risks associated with DNA synthesis.”12 As the cost of DNA synthesis falls, the risk of an actor creating a dangerous pathogen (accidentally or not) grows. Currently, there are no legal requirements of DNA synthesis companies to filter out potentially dangerous orders and no support for such companies to do so. NTI has convened experts, policymakers and corporate representatives to improve safety measures. This is among NTI’s most promising projects and the organisation is aiming to develop it further in the future.
  • Catalysing the development of a biological risk initiative within the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. This effort supports governments in African countries to implement effective policies to prevent accidental or deliberate biological events on the continent,13 including releases of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.14 The initiative grew out of NTI’s 2018 Global Biosecurity Dialogue.15 In 2020 the first full-time staff member was hired and NTI is now working to strengthen the initiative in Africa and scale the model to other continents.

Why do we trust this organisation?

For this recommendation, we are grateful to be able to utilise the in-depth expertise of, and background research conducted by, current and former staff at Open Philanthropy, the world’s largest grant-maker on global catastrophic risk. Open Philanthropy identifies high-impact giving opportunities, makes grants, follows the results and publishes its findings. (Disclosure: Open Philanthropy has made several unrelated grants to Founders Pledge.)

Experts in global catastrophic risk reduction consider NTI to be one of the most effective organisations in this space.16 Since its founding in 2001 by US Senator Sam Nunn and Giving Pledge-signatory Ted Turner, NTI has been led by people with experience in high-level policy positions. The current CEO is Ernest Moniz, whose previous positions include US Secretary of Energy and Professor of Physics and Engineering at MIT. Among NTI’s advisors and directors are many prominent philanthropists, former politicians and experts.17 Connections to influential policymakers do not guarantee that NTI will influence policy in this space, but speaks to the organisation’s strong reputation.

NTI’s biosecurity efforts are led by Dr. Beth Cameron. Dr. Cameron previously served as the Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense on the White House National Security Council (NSC) staff. She also worked on Cooperative Threat Reduction in the Department of Defense and Global Threat Reduction in the Department of State. Other members of NTI | bio’s team include:

  • Andrew Hebbeler, who was previously Deputy Director of the U.S. Department of State's Office of Science and Technology Cooperation and a Senior Science, Technology, and Innovation Adviser to the Secretary of State
  • Jaime Yassif, who previously worked as a Program Officer at Open Philanthropy, where she led the initiative on Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness
  • Jessica Bell, previously Senior Advisor to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program
  • Jacob Eckles, previously a Global Health Officer in the Office of Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Hayley Severance, previously Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction at the U.S. Department of Defense.

NTI | bio is also advised by a prestigious Advisory Group headed by Margaret A. Hamburg, Foreign Secretary of the National Academy of Medicine. Overall, NTI | bio’s staff bring a wealth of past policy experience in influential positions. They seem well-placed to lead future efforts to reduce biosecurity risks.

What would they do with more funding?

There are a number of high-value future projects that NTI | bio would like to pursue. The highest-priority projects are:18

  1. Establishing a global system to prevent biotechnology catastrophes. This will involve launching an international common mechanism for screening DNA synthesis orders and working towards the establishment of a new international biosecurity entity dedicated to reducing biotechnology risks, promoting biosecurity norms, and strengthening oversight of life sciences research. NTI | bio has raised $1 million out of a required $2.5 million needed.
  2. Bolstering accountability & enhancing transparency to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention. NTI | bio aims to strengthen the global norm against bioweapons development by creating stronger systems of accountability to deter states that might otherwise consider bioweapons development and improving international transparency about bioscience and biotechnology research and development to reduce the risk of arms-racing behaviour. NTI | bio requires $400K - $1 million in order to implement this project. Otherwise, the project will likely culminate in a workshop to discuss recommendations.
  3. 2021 Global Health Security Index. In partnership with Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and The Economist Intelligence Unit, NTI | bio produced the Global Health Security (GHS) Index for the first time in 2019, which provided a comprehensive assessment and benchmarking of health security, global catastrophic biological risks and related capabilities across 195 countries. NTI | bio would like to produce the GHS Index every two years and intends to include additional analyses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a shortfall of $1.25 million for this project, without which NTI | bio’s ability to meet timelines and analyse data will be constrained.

NTI | bio has indicated to us that marginal donations could be used to fund the following activities.19 This information is current as of September 2020. These examples are illustrative of the kinds of activities that NTI | bio could fund and do not represent commitments to fund specific projects.

Screen Shot 2020-11-27 at 15.21.43

NTI | bio’s major funder is Open Philanthropy, which gave them $6 million over 2017 to 2019 in core funding, and renewed core funding of $7 million in 2020, for the following three years. The Government of Canada has also given some money to support NTI | bio’s regional biosecurity modeling. Finally, NTI has also received $1.7 million over the last year for COVID-19-specific projects. Grant evaluators at Open Philanthropy believe that NTI | bio is unlikely to receive significant support for their core activities from other funders.20 One concern is that, were NTI | bio’s budget to increase rapidly, the organisation would struggle to scale up and the cost-effectiveness of additional donations would suffer.21 However we believe that donations from Founders Pledge members are unlikely to significantly change NTI | bio’s strategic planning and that the organisation’s scale-up is a minor concern.

Considering the success NTI has had with each of these activities in the past, we would be excited to see members’ donations contribute to any or all of the above. We recommend members make unrestricted grants to NTI | bio to allow the organisation to use the funds at its own discretion.

Message from the organisation

NTI | bio is focused on impactful work that meaningfully reduces the most grave biological threats facing humanity. We prioritize initiatives that have the greatest likelihood of achieving systemic change and which are focused on reducing the largest biosecurity gaps around the world.

For example, NTI | bio is undertaking ambitious, urgent, and challenging work to reduce emerging biological risks associated with rapid technology advances such as benchtop DNA synthesis and gene editing. We seek to catalyze the establishment of an international system that identifies and reduces biotechnology risks while promoting sustainable development. We seek to prevent deliberate biological use through strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention and the broader UN System to equip them to reduce global catastrophic biological risks. We are working closely with regional partners -- for example the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention -- to implement and track biosecurity and biosafety measures. We are measuring international progress through the 195 country Global Health Security Index.

We have a stellar team of talented and dedicated professionals who care deeply about reducing global biological risks and advancing a safer and more secure world. Your support will empower us to make a meaningful, measurable impact on a national, regional, and global scale. Thank you so much for your leadership and support.

-Beth Cameron, NTI Vice President, Global Biological Policy and Programs

More resources

Interviews/Presentations

  • Beth Cameron was interviewed for the podcast “80,000 Hours” in October 2017
  • Jaime Yassif was interviewed for BBC’s “Science in Action” in February 2020
  • Beth Cameron was interviewed on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” on in March 2020
  • Beth Cameron spoke with long-time journalist Katie Couric for her podcast “Next Question with Katie Couric” in March 2020
  • Jaime Yassif presented to the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense in September 2020 (her presentation starts at 1:36:00)
  • Andrew Hebbeler participated in the workshop series, “Science, Technology, and Health Capabilities within the Department of State at an Inflection Point,” hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
  • Jaime Yassif was interviewed on 'Global Dispatches,' a podcast of the United Nations (UN) Dispatch, in October 2020


Global Health Security (GHS) Index

  • 4-minute “About the Global Health Security Index” video
  • Washington Post article by Lena Sun covering the release of the Global Health Security Index in October 2019


Tabletop Exercises and Reports

  • Tabletop exercise on deliberate biological events hosted by NTI at the Munich Security Conference in February 2019, and the subsequent report: A Spreading Plague: Lessons and Recommendations for Responding to a Deliberate Biological Event.
  • Tabletop exercise about high-consequence biological risks hosted by NTI at the Munich Security Conference in February 2020 and the subsequent report: Preventing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks: Lessons and Recommendations from a Tabletop Exercise held at the 2020 Munich Security Conference.


Disclaimer: We do not have a reciprocal relationship with any charity, and recommendations are subject to change based on our ongoing research.

Notes


  1. DeWitte, “Mortality Risk and Survival in the Aftermath of the Medieval Black Death.” 

  2. Niall Johnson and Juergen Mueller, “Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918-1920 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76, no. 1 (2002): 105–115. 

  3. ‘On DNA and Transistors’, synthesis, accessed 27 October 2020, http://www.synthesis.cc/synthesis/2016/03/on_dna_and_transistors/.  

  4. Piers Millett and Andrew Snyder-Beattie, “Human Agency and Global Catastrophic Biorisks,” Health Security 15, no. 4 (July 26, 2017): 335–36, https://doi.org/10.1089/hs.2017.0044.  

  5. “Established scientific techniques allow the creation of novel strains of known viruses, particularly influenza, which have never been detected in nature, and to which no population has prior immunity. These novel strains could be deliberately engineered with the goal of maintaining high virulence (such as that of H5N1) or adding respiratory transmissibility … It is also possible that such an event could result from a laboratory accident.” Schoch-Spana et al., ‘Global Catastrophic Biological Risks: Toward a Working Definition’, Health Security 15, no. 4 (1 August 2017): 323–28, https://doi.org/10.1089/hs.2017.0038.  

  6. NTI’s institutional objectives are to prevent the use of nuclear weapons and their spread, prevent nuclear and biological terrorism, prevent catastrophic biological events. 

  7. Personal communication from NTI, September 2020. 

  8. https://www.nti.org/about/projects/wins/  

  9. https://www.nti.org/about/projects/dialogue-future-us-russia-nuclear-cooperation/  

  10. https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/bio/  

  11. “With an annual budget of approximately $1.5 million dollars and an uneven cash flow, the UN has struggled to maintain full-year contracts for ISU staff and to support the BWC’s basic functions. The WCF provides a financial buffer that can help ensure continuity of BWC operations, and NTI’s establishment of a new mechanism to enable non-governmental contributions can help ensure that it is fully funded’ (NTI, personal communication) 

  12. NTI, personal communication 

  13. https://africacdc.org/programme/laboratory-systems-and-networks/biosafety-and-biosecurity/  

  14. NTI, personal communication 

  15. NTI, personal communication 

  16. “We consider NTI to be one of the most effective non-governmental organizations working to reduce WMD risks. [...] We see NTI as an effective organization with a comparative advantage in working internationally and making progress with foreign governments on challenging security issues” (Open Philanthropy Project, “Nuclear Threat Initiative -- Biosecurity Program Support”). 

  17. https://www.nti.org/about/board-and-advisors/  

  18. NTI, personal communication. 

  19. NTI, personal communication. 

  20. “Our impression is that NTI is unlikely to get substantial general support for its biosecurity program from other funders during the grant period, though we expect the organization will receive some support for project-specific activities” (Open Philanthropy Project, “Nuclear Threat Initiative — Biosecurity Program Support”, https://www.openphilanthropy.org/focus/global-catastrophic-risks/biosecurity/nuclear-threat-initiative-biosecurity-program-support/).  

  21. “NTI has outlined an ambitious set of plans, and it will need to hire additional staff to support its biosecurity program. We think it’s possible NTI will experience delays in staff hiring or project completion” (Open Philanthropy Project, “Nuclear Threat Initiative — Biosecurity Program Support”, https://www.openphilanthropy.org/focus/global-catastrophic-risks/biosecurity/nuclear-threat-initiative-biosecurity-program-support/).  

Aidan Goth

Author

Aidan joined the research team at Founders Pledge in August 2019. Prior to working at Founders Pledge, he studied at the University of Oxford. He graduated with a First Class MMathPhil in Mathematics and Philosophy, specialising in formal epistemology, decision theory and ethics.

In his free time, Aidan enjoys film & theatre, audiobooks and playing squash.

Stephen Clare

Co-Author

Stephen joined the research team in 2019 with intentions of saving the world, or at least making it suck less. Previously he lived in Rwanda and Panama, where he worked as a Program Analyst for the United Nations and sweated a lot. Born and raised in rural Canada, Stephen is passionate about campfires, cedar trees, and highly-effective charities. He has complicated feelings about fish.