Experts horizon scan to help create a risk map of major emerging biosecurity threats

Published: Friday, 05 February 2021 12:52

The results of a horizon scanning process facilitated by the Centre for Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge and the BioRISC project at St Catharine's College have been published. A group of 41 academics and figures from industry and government submitted 450 possible questions (potential risk areas) which were then debated, voted on, and ranked to define the 80 most urgent.

The final line-up includes major questions on future disease threats, including what role shifts in climate and land use might play, and whether data from social media platforms should be used to help detect the earliest signs of emerging pathogens. Other key areas that experts believe should be a focus for investigation include questions around custom DNA synthesis and threats from ‘human-engineered agents’, the challenges posed by Brexit and vulnerabilities in transport and food systems, risks from ‘invasive alien species’ in water and soil, and how best to incorporate biological security issues in scientific education.

"We need to plan for a biosecure future that could see anything from brain-altering bioweapons and mass surveillance through DNA databases to low-carbon clothes produced by microorganisms,” said Dr Luke Kemp from CSER who led the research project. “Many of these may seem to lie in the realm of science fiction but they do not. Such capabilities in bioengineering could prove even more impactful, for better or worse, than the current pandemic."

Kemp added: "The world needs a thoughtful, transparent and evidence based way of identifying emerging issues in biosecurity and bioengineering. Whether it be a new flu pandemic, new bioweapons, or new ways to sequester carbon, forewarned is forearmed."

Read the paper ‘80 questions for UK biological security’.