Biotechnology and the Fermi Paradox
Is our species wise enough to survive the technologies we have invented?
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice—
In the 1960s, the astrophysicist Frank Drake, a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, attempted to estimate the number of alien civilizations in the Milky Way. The famous Drake Equation estimates the probability that human beings are alone in the universe:
Unless the odds of advanced life evolving on a habitable planet are astonishingly low, he concluded, ours can’t be the universe’s only technologically advanced civilization.1
In 2016, a paper in Astrobiology updated this equation in light of recent discoveries in exoplanet studies. A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe argues there is a firm lower bound on the probability that one or more technological species have evolved anywhere and at any time in the history of the observable universe. Our civilization is apt to be unique in the cosmos only if the odds of a civilization developing on a habitable planet are less than roughly one in 10 billion trillion.
But even though we have searched for it assiduously, so far we’ve found no evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations. They never write. They never call. The contradiction between rosy estimates of the probability of the evolution of advanced civilizations and this profound disappointment is known as the Fermi Paradox.
In 1996, the economist Robert Hanson wrote, The Great Filter—Are We Almost Past It? Life in the universe, if it is anything like life on Earth, should be expanding to fill all the available ecological niches, he observes. So it’s truly strange no one has come to visit.
There are two possible explanations for the Great Silence. The first is that the odds of a civilization like ours emerging from the component parts of the universe are actually vastly less than roughly one in 10 billion trillion. If so, the Great Filter is behind us. We have achieved the near impossible—we’re here. The second is that something—something law-like—prevents advanced civilizations from advancing beyond their planets. If so, the Great Filter is ahead of us.
Why might the Great Filter lie ahead of us? Perhaps—as Nick Bostrum speculated in Where are They?—technologically advanced societies are inherently doomed to wipe themselves out before they master the technology for space colonization. Could there be something about the process of becoming technologically advanced that inevitably spells catastrophe? Now, a small inevitable catastrophe wouldn’t do the job: A nuclear war might wipe most of us out, but you only need a few to survive—just two of us, really; we’d repopulate the planet in no time, geologically speaking. No, Bostrum writes, you’d need a terminal global cataclysm. An existential catastrophe. What might it be?
We can identify a number of potential existential risks: nuclear war fought with stockpiles much greater than those that exist today (maybe resulting from future arms races); a genetically engineered superbug; environmental disaster; asteroid impact; wars or terrorists act committed with powerful future weapons, perhaps based on advanced forms of nanotechnology; superintelligent general artificial intelligence with destructive goals; high‐energy physics experiments; a permanent global Brave‐New‐World‐like totalitarian regime protected from revolution by new surveillance and mind control technologies. …
I suspect the Great Filter is behind us, not ahead of us. But if it’s not the former, it must be the latter. And we sure can’t find all those other civilizations.
For my money, a genetically-engineered superbug is the best candidate.
It’s also possible the Great Filter is behind us and ahead of us. When I consider the Covid19 pandemic and the future of biotechnology, I have a very bad feeling about things.
There is one saving grace to nuclear weapons. They’re hard to make. Until now, only a small number of people have possessed the ability to end human civilization. Biotechnology, however, will give this power to tens of thousands—perhaps millions. It is a statistical likelihood that one of them will be irresponsible or insane.
By now, I assume, you’re well aware that SARS-CoV-2 may have emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan. You’re probably also aware that the consensus about the virus’s origins—came from a bat, you bet, for sure—was manufactured.2 The story of the conspiracy to obscure the possibility of a lab escape is lamentable, all the more so because it has served its intended purpose: Even though we’re living through a pandemic that has stopped the world in its tracks, killed millions, and will kill millions more, the public is insufficiently alarmed about the danger emerging from the world’s laboratories.
Set aside, for now, the question of the origins of this particular pandemic. How great is the risk of an even worse pandemic owed to laboratory mishap? If the risk of a catastrophic accident involving nuclear weapons is greater than most people realize, the risk of a catastrophic laboratory mishap—accidental or deliberate—is far greater still.
Pandemics have ended civilizations before. Antibiotics and vaccinations mitigate these risks, but only to an extent. Probably, nothing that emerges from nature will wipe all of us out. But engineered microorganisms—made by states or even by one single person—might be able to do the job.
On the current trajectory, we will soon cure cancer. This is joyous news. But it means it won’t be long before every advanced hospital in the world will have the technology to do this. And this technology will be suited to killing any genetically-defined target, not just cancer cells.
The pace of progress in biotechnology is inexorable, and the pressure to make lifesaving advances in medicine irresistible. But all of this technology is dual-use. All of it has a worldwide reach. You don’t need to be a state to make a bioweapon: Soon, millions of us will have the ability to end our civilization.
It could happen by accident, or it could happen on purpose. Who would do such a thing? Well, consider the number of people who think it’s a good idea to purchase a high-powered rifle, walk into a grocery store, and shoot as many people as they can. Consider, too, how many deeply disturbed people believe there are simply too many human beings for the planet’s good.
Some people are just wired up wrong. There’s a fixed number of psychopaths in every population. Probably a million-odd people are out there who know enough about molecular genetics that they could figure out how to engineer a deadly virus. It is not just possible but likely that someone with his head screwed on wrong is among them.
Although a presumption of human malice is realistic, no presumption of malice is needed. Deadly pathogens escape from well-intentioned laboratories all the time. All the time. In the wake of the SARS epidemic in 2003, for example, SARS reemerged four times, and only once did it reemerge zoonotically. The other three times? Lab accidents.
In Singapore, the accident was due to “inappropriate laboratory standards and a cross-contamination of West Nile virus samples with SARS coronavirus in the laboratory,” according to a WHO investigation team. Among the team’s other findings:
inadequate record-keeping procedures, totally inadequate training, inexistent virus stock inventory, patchy maintenance records plus a variety of structural problems including the absence of gauges to indicate the pressure differentials, the lack of a freezer to store samples, problems with HEPA filters and air supply, and other equipment deficiencies.
The second escape, from the Taiwan Military Institute of Preventive Medical Research—a military P4 complex—involved a researcher who found a ripped, leaking bag in the negative-pressure transport cabinet. He was in a rush, so instead of cleaning it as he should have, with vaporized hydrogen peroxide, he used an ethanol solution. He stuck his (improperly gloved) hands and his head in the cabinet to reach the spill, then dumped the leaking bag in the trash. He promptly got on a commercial flight to Singapore. Six days later, he was critically ill with SARS. He tried to isolate himself at home for fear of bringing shame upon himself and the laboratory. His father only persuaded him to seek medical attention by threatening to commit suicide.3
The WHO investigation team, again, found “many management problems associated with this facility,”
including working alone at a BSL-4, inadequate staff training, a lack of standard operating procedures and a failure to have a medical monitoring program in place. Senior management could not explain why, after he had reported to the clinic with a respiratory disease, he was not followed up for the next six days when he was absent from work.
In Singapore and Taipei alike, these accidents sent shockwaves through the country and were followed by root-and-branch reform of national biosecurity practices. Such reform did not happen after a similar episode in Beijing. This was the most serious of these three cases, resulting in community transmission, but it’s also the most opaque, since there was a speedy cover-up.
What happened is hard to piece together, but it seems an inadequately inactivated preparation of the SARS virus was used in laboratory areas that weren’t properly secured. A 26 year-old graduate student died. Nearly 1,000 people had to be quarantined. The WHO sent an investigative team, as it had to Singapore and Taipei. They discovered they were expected to nod in agreement with the Chinese investigators and otherwise keep their mouths shut.
All of these laboratories were ranked P3 or P4. As DRASTIC notes, “a P3 or P4 certification is largely secondary in terms of biosafety.”
The major risk factors are the people entering the lab and the processes that are applied there. It is thus very easy to build a P3 but practically run it as a P2 as far as people and processes are involved, a point that the 2004 Beijing SARS lab leaks amply illustrated.
Compared to other industries, such as nuclear industries for instance, the situation is worse. People working in nuclear power stations typically go through lengthy qualifications. Also a radioactive exposure or increased coolant temperature can usually be immediately detected and measured via sensors. In contrast biological P3 labs often see students with limited qualification in biosafety working there (see Singapore and Beijing leaks), and pathogen exposure is typically not detected until too late. The parallel would thus be a nuclear power station where students are routinely given a chance to manipulate radioactive fuel, or put in charge of reactor controls with limited oversight and limited sensors—all after a short risk induction. In the extreme a P3 or P4 designation may actually be counterproductive if it leads to a false sense of safety.
Immediately after the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, the Global Times—China’s English-language propaganda organ—reported that China’s Ministry of Science and Technology had issued new regulations on laboratory safety. It was a move, they reported, “that experts said could fix chronic inadequate management issues.”
The release of the guideline deals with chronic loopholes at laboratories, Yang Zhanqiu, a deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University in Hubei Province, told the Global Times on Sunday …
Laboratories in China have paid insufficient attention to biological disposal, Yang said.
Lab trash can contain man-made viruses, bacteria or microbes with a potentially deadly impact on human beings, animals or plants.
Some researchers discharge laboratory materials into the sewer after experiments without a specific biological disposal mechanism, Yang explained.
The Global Times was at pains to report this had nothing to do with Covid19, even if “some Internet conspiracy theorists” and “obscure online articles” had tried to link the outbreak to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Such a thing was impossible, said Yang, “given its extremely strict management.”
It’s not just China—not by any stretch of the imagination. The 1977 influenza pandemic was man-made. Russian-made, to be precise. Smallpox, too, escaped from a lab in the Soviet Union. So did anthrax. So did the Marburg virus—twice. Smallpox escaped twice from the same lab in Birmingham. It escaped from a lab in London. Another researcher in London gave himself Ebola with a needle-stick. So did a researcher in Russia.
Labs in the US have seeded repeated outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. Swine fever virus, too. A researcher at the Center for Infectious Disease Research in Milwaukee punctured his hand with a needle loaded with a highly pathogenic avian influenza. One in Pittsburgh gave herself Zika the same way. The CDC has shipped H9N2 vials contaminated with H5N1 to the USDA.
A lab in Russia that handled highly pathogenic avian flu once suffered a gas explosion that blew out the window panes of the decontamination room. The Virus Research Laboratory in Ibadan, Nigeria, seems to have been particularly ill-starred; it unleashed Venezuelan equine encephalitis, Kyasanur Forest disease, vesicular stomatitis, Rift Valley fever, Tick-borne encephalitis, louping ill, Chikungunya, West Nile fever, yellow fever, and Wesselsbron virus upon its environs, serially.
To judge from the literature, lab mice—infected with every stripe of disease—are especially prone to going missing. And who could blame them? Of course they make a dash for it when they see the Bad Man approaching them with the electric paddles. But infected and genetically-engineered mice are impossible to find again once they make it into the wainscotting.
As of 2010, 10,639 workers in the US had approved access to biological select agents and toxins. Between 2004 to 2010, 639 release reports were reported to the Centers for Disease Control.
Gain of Function
Gain-of-function experiments, in which researchers manipulate pathogens to see if they can make them even more dangerous, pose obvious risks. You would think the risks so obvious that no one would dream of doing these experiments, but you would be so very wrong. Experiments that augment the virulence and transmissibility of dangerous pathogens, for example the H5N1 bird flu virus, are now not only performed, but performed in universities in urban areas—a recipe for disaster. It hardly seems as if the world has seen much benefit from this research, has it?4
As early as 2015, sober voices were sounding alarms about the hybrid bat coronaviruses they were cooking up at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research, reported Nature. Subsequently, the very same journal primly deplored as conspiracy theorists those who wondered whether engineered bat viruses might have leaked from the very same laboratory that stirred this debate.
It is worth dwelling on this report. Roll the words around in your mind.
An experiment that created a hybrid version of a bat coronavirus—one related to the virus that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome)—has triggered renewed debate over whether engineering lab variants of viruses with possible pandemic potential is worth the risks. …
The findings reinforce suspicions that bat coronaviruses capable of directly infecting humans (rather than first needing to evolve in an intermediate animal host) may be more common than previously thought, the researchers say.
But other virologists question whether the information gleaned from the experiment justifies the potential risk. Although the extent of any risk is difficult to assess, Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, points out that the researchers have created a novel virus that “grows remarkably well” in human cells. “If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory,” he says.
There is no reason to think labs engaged in bioweapons research are less accident prone than those engaged in civilian research; indeed, there’s reason to think they may be more dangerous. Safety inspectors aren’t welcome in bioweapons labs. Neither are the WHO’s dutiful occupational health and safety teams.
China in particular is believed to be a paramount producer of biological weapons. Dany Shoham is one of Israel’s leading authorities on the subject. His 2015 paper, China’s Biological Warfare Programme: An Integrative Study with Special Reference to Biological Weapons Capabilities, is eye-popping. He reviews a wide variety of facilities affiliated with China’s defense establishment and military and concludes that no fewer than 42 facilities in China are involved in research, development, production, testing, or storage of biological weapons.
Although China joined the Biological Weapons Convention in 1984, no one seriously believes it adheres to it in good faith. Signatories to the Convention are obliged, for example, immediately to share information about outbreaks of acute infectious diseases with the relevant international organizations. China did not do so when SARS-CoV broke out in November 2002: By the time Beijing informed the WHO, in February 2003, the virus had spread to 37 countries. Nor did it do so when SARS-CoV-2 emerged. This record suggests, at best, an ambivalence about the letter and spirit of the Convention. The United States’ intelligence community, for what it’s worth, has assessed consistently that China is lying about its biological weapons capability.
For historic reasons, China is particularly keen to master these technologies. The memory of Japanese biological warfare against China, between 1933 and 1945, remains bitter. China is now poised to become the world’s leader in biotechnology innovation. “The range and magnitude of consequences and implications are vast,” Shoham writes. Among them is China’s emerging ability to upgrade biological warfare agents by genetic engineering. China, he suggests, may have “the tentative option of modifying certain biological warfare agents (in theory, at the least) so as to increase their impact against particular ethnic groups.”
Advocates of a more vigorous investigation of the lab-leak theory have focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention as sources of the putative leak, and reasonably enough, given that both have conducted large projects on novel bat viruses; both maintain large collections of these viruses; and the Institute of Virology held in its collection RaTG13—the closest relative we have so far found to SARS-CoV-2. But the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products might be a good place to look, too. The PRC’s Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention declaration listed this facility as part of its “national defensive biological warfare R&D program.”5 The Institute of Biological Products is just next door to the Wuhan Institute of Virology:
Some of these facilities, Shohan notes, have “frequent and systematic interactions with American scientists, often aiming to absorb—ostensibly academically—advanced know-how from the concerned scientists.” These contacts are directed by the Commission for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, or COSTIND, and the PLA Military Intelligence Department. COSTIND also supervises seven universities and research institutes, all of which conduct biotechnological and biomedical research and development. “Interestingly,” Shohan notes, they concentrate “mainly on epidemic modelling, space microbiology, and, occasionally, medical microbiology.
“One can conclude,” Shohan writes, “that China is capable of developing, producing and weaponizing, on the whole, some 40 anti-human pathogens and toxins, either intact or genetically upgraded, if not largely engineered.” He presumes the inventory comprises, at the least, your basic set: plague, brucellosis, Japanese Encephalitis, SARS, Ebola and flu.
I have singled out China because it is reasonable to think China’s biological weapons program is now the world’s most extensive and advanced, and because this pandemic—on schedule to kill ten million people before it’s finished—emerged from China. But many other countries have had, or are believed now to have, similar programs, including Canada, Cuba, Egypt, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Libya, North Korea, Russia, South Africa, Syria, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Irrespective of the hostile intentions of the nation in question, the possibility of accidents—indeed, over time, the statistical likelihood of them—makes these laboratories a massive threat to the world.
And of course, often nations do have hostile intentions.
Biotechnology and the Great Filter
In 2018, John Sotos wrote a prescient paper for the International Journal of Astrobiology titled Biotechnology and the lifetime of technical civilizations. From the abstract:
The number of people able to end Earth’s technical civilization has heretofore been small. Emerging dual-use technologies, such as biotechnology, may give similar power to thousands or millions of individuals. To quantitatively investigate the ramifications of such a marked shift on the survival of both terrestrial and extraterrestrial technical civilizations, this paper presents a two-parameter model for civilizational lifespans, i.e. the quantity L in Drake’s equation for the number of communicating extraterrestrial civilizations. One parameter characterizes the population lethality of a civilization’s biotechnology and the other characterizes the civilization’s psychosociology. L is demonstrated to be less than the inverse of the product of these two parameters. Using empiric data from PubMed to inform the biotechnology parameter, the model predicts human civilization’s median survival time as decades to centuries, even with optimistic psychosociological parameter values, thereby positioning biotechnology as a proximate threat to human civilization. For an ensemble of civilizations having some median calculated survival time, the model predicts that, after 80 times that duration, only one in 1024 civilizations will survive—a tempo and degree of winnowing compatible with Hanson’s Great Filter. Thus, assuming that civilizations universally develop advanced biotechnology before they become vigorous interstellar colonizers, the model provides a resolution to the Fermi paradox.
It’s reasonable, Sotos suggests, to think that as a rule, “civilizations will develop and use sophisticated biotechnology before dispersing themselves on other planets.”
… the experience of 20th century Earth is likely typical, i.e. the progress of medicine and public health in the era antedating genetic biotechnology creates a population explosion, so that civilization consists of a large, dense, mobile population on a single homeworld at the time that potentially CE biotechnology is developed. Because such ecological conditions are conducive to the spread of communicable agents, it is reasonable to hypothesize that all planetary civilizations will face existential threats from contagious micro-organisms—whether engineered or not— before they become vigorous interstellar colonizers.
He concludes that he is therefore obliged to advise advanced technical civilizations to stop worrying about megascale computation and start worrying about microbes.
This sounds like excellent advice—whether or not the ornamental mathematics and the missing space creatures have been required to get your attention.
If you’re having trouble with the equation, I just discovered that it has been explained in dance:
This is why we don’t let dance majors build our spacecraft.
If however you’ve been living with your head under a rock, I recommend this reading list: The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan? by Nicholas Wade; The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19’s Origins, by Katherine Eban; How Amateur Sleuths Broke the Wuhan Lab Story and Embarrassed the Media, by Rowan Jacobsen; In 2018, Diplomats Warned of Risky Coronavirus Experiments in a Wuhan Lab. No One Listened, by Josh Rogin; and if you’d like to muck about in the scientific literature, try: The genetic structure of SARS-CoV-2 does not rule out a laboratory origin, by Rossana Segreto and Yuri Deigin; and Might SARS-CoV-2 Have Arisen via Serial Passage through an Animal Host or Cell Culture? by Karl Sirotkin and Dan Sirotkin. For a longer bibliography, see Origins of SARS-CoV-2, on Jamie Metzl’s site, and DRASTIC’s website.
For a comprehensive look at these episodes, again, DRASTIC has done the work that journalists couldn’t be bothered to do. See A review of SARS Lab Escapes in 2003-2004, by Gilles Demaneuf.
If scientists insist upon doing this kind of research, they should be obliged to do it six hundred feet underground, in the middle of the desert at Los Alamos, and they should be obliged to enter mandatory quarantine for two weeks afterward. If they protest that this is too inconvenient, perhaps the research isn’t as urgent as their grant proposals suggest.
See conference sponsored by the National Intelligence Council and Federal Research Division, China and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Implications for the United States.