In 2018, the World Health Organization published a study that placed the likelihood of a Spanish flu-style pandemic at somewhere between 0.5 percent and 1 percent each year. Such an outbreak, it said, could kill as many as 28 million people.
Despite the risk of such staggering loss, few countries took the threat seriously. Pandemics are a kind of “global catastrophic risk” — a term popularized by Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom describing an event that is unlikely to occur but that would have massive and deadly consequences if it did. In general, governments are poorly equipped to address such threats, preferring to tackle the immediate and concrete over the improbable and remote. The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the consequences of that failure. Governments around the world were blindsided by the virus, whose death toll has already surpassed 3.7 million, including more than 590,000 Americans.
Yet as terrible as the outbreak has been, it could have been even worse. The virus could have been deadlier or more contagious. It could have been spread on purpose by malicious nonstate actors or by government labs (the Biden administration is probing the possibility that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab, though a deliberate release remains little more than a conspiracy theory). And beyond pandemics, other catastrophic risks loom on the horizon — threats like bioterrorism, nuclear war, and climate change.
The United States lacks a rigorous framework for thinking about these kinds of risks. This is a mistake. Policymakers should place catastrophic-risk reduction at the heart of U.S. security policy. Congress should establish a bipartisan commission to investigate the response to Covid-19, and the Biden administration should reform the way the federal government prepares for catastrophic threats. The pandemic has presented the United States with an opportunity to overhaul its approach to existential risks — if it chooses to take it.
What Are Catastrophic Risks?
Since at least the dawn of the nuclear age, scholars have warned of the perils of catastrophic risks. In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people like Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell began to write about the risk that nuclear war posed to the future of humanity. In recent years, a growing number of scholars have made the case that people should take such risks seriously.
What are these threats, exactly? The Covid-19 pandemic has rightly exposed the danger of the uncontrolled spread of disease. But this is not the only catastrophic risk facing the United States, or the world more broadly. Although far from an exhaustive list, four of the biggest risks are natural pandemics and lab accidents, bioterrorism and biological warfare, nuclear war, and climate change.
Natural Pandemics and Lab Accidents
Pandemics like Covid-19 have become more likely in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributes the increased risk to a number of factors, including the “development of antimicrobial resistance,” the “spread of infectious diseases through global travel and trade,” and the “increased risk of infectious pathogens ‘spilling over’ from animals to humans.” When pandemics do occur, their costs are high. A 2008 survey estimated there was a 15 percent chance of a pandemic that would kill at least 1 billion people by the end of the century. And then there’s the economic impact: Covid-19 is set to cost the global economy more than $10 trillion in lost output in 2020 and 2021.
A growing risk of lab accidents has also raised the threat of deadly outbreaks. In 2007, the United Kingdom was hit by a bout of foot-and-mouth disease, which was traced back to a badly maintained pipe between two research facilities working on the pathogen. Lab accidents have also been responsible for outbreaks of smallpox (in 1971 and 1978), anthrax (in 1979), rabbit calicivirus (in 1995), and more. A paper published in 2014 placed the risk of a deadly virus escaping from a lab and causing a pandemic in the next decade at a staggering 27 percent.
It may have already happened: several experts, including the Stanford microbiologist David Relman, have argued that we can’t rule out the possibility that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, although the origin may never be established definitively. Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, has argued that the risk of lab accidents will continue to grow as more and more labs handle bioweapons and pathogens that have the potential to cause pandemics. There were more than 1,500 such labs worldwide in 2010, many of them in urban areas near travel hubs. “The most dramatic expansion has occurred in China during the last four years,” Ebright wrote in March, “driven as an arms-race-style reaction to biodefense expansion in the US, Europe, and Japan.”
Bioterrorism and Biological Warfare
Natural pandemics are not the only biological threat. As early as 600 B.C.E., armies were using primitive biological weapons — “filth and cadavers, animal carcasses, and contagion” — against their enemies. During the Middle Ages, an attacking Tartar force, weakened by an epidemic of the plague, weaponized their dead by throwing the bodies into the city they were besieging to start an outbreak there.
In the last century, biological weapons have become far deadlier and easier to manufacture. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained the world’s largest biological weapons program, employing over 50,000 people at more than 50 production facilities, including one near Yekaterinburg that leaked spores of anthrax that may have killed up to 105 people in 1979.
Such weaponry might be child’s play compared with the capabilities that exist today. In 2016, for example, virologists in Edmonton, Canada, synthesized the now-extinct horsepox virus in six months from genetic materials they ordered in the mail. The whole operation cost about $100,000, and scientists said that a similar method could be used to manufacture smallpox, one of history’s deadliest diseases. North Korea, meanwhile, has at least 10 facilities it appears to be using to research and produce various biological agents, including those responsible for the plague and hemorrhagic fevers. And the gene editing tool CRISPR is likely to make the creation of biological weapons even easier. As Alan Shaffer, then the deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told Congress last year, “Science is revealing the means to weaponize biology and chemistry in ways that were purely theoretical only 10 years ago.”
In 2018, nuclear war topped the World Economic Forum’s list of manmade threats to global stability. Perhaps the greatest threat comes from North Korea, which withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 2003 and has conducted six nuclear tests in the past decade and a half. Iran remains further from presenting a true nuclear weapons threat, but its program is once again a concern following former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the landmark 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal) that had significantly curbed the program and subjected it to rigorous international monitoring. Following the U.S. assassination of Iranian Major General Qassim Suleimani in January 2020, Iran announced that it would no longer abide by the limits on uranium enrichment set by the JCPOA. And it has continued to disregard other elements of the accord, since the Biden administration has not yet rejoined the deal or lifted the nuclear-related sanctions that Trump reimposed. The United States and Russia, meanwhile, still have hundreds of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert.
The Trump administration made matters worse by withdrawing from two major arms control treaties: the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed State parties to conduct short reconnaissance flights over other States’ territory to ensure they were not preparing for military attack, and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned medium-range missiles. Although the Biden administration has renewed the New START agreement with Russia, which limits the size of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, further progress on strategic arms control will prove difficult, especially against the backdrop of what may be the world’s first three-way nuclear arms race, as China upgrades and expands its own arsenal.
Climate change has the potential to be broadly destabilizing, resulting in food and water shortages, the large-scale displacement of people, and increased conflict. Rising sea levels mean devastating floods will happen much more frequently, warmer oceans will bring stronger tropical storms, and hotter temperatures will cause more droughts. By some estimates, even if the world fulfills its commitments under the Paris agreement, the chance of warming greater than 3.5 ºC by 2100 stands at 50 percent, with a 10 percent chance of warming greater than 4.7 ºC — far higher than the 2 ºC limit that scientists generally agree is vital to averting the worst effects of climate change. Even more extreme scenarios are possible, if melting arctic permafrost or the release of methane from the deep ocean trigger accelerating feedback loops that release vast additional quantities of greenhouse gasses.
National security policymakers have acknowledged some of these risks. The Department of Defense has described climate change as a “threat multiplier,” and the Obama administration argued that “The national security implications of climate change impacts are far-reaching, as they may exacerbate existing stressors, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and political instability.” When President Joe Biden took office, he appointed former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and, in an acknowledgment of the link between climate change and national security, gave him a seat on the National Security Council (NSC).
Behind the Curve
Despite the growing list of catastrophic risks, the United States has not made preparedness enough of a priority. A 2011 report by the Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center graded U.S. preparedness for a biological “Global Crisis” scenario as an “F” on most criteria. The Clinton administration in the 1990s created a national pharmaceutical stockpile, and in 2006, Congress established the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to provide an integrated approach to the development of critical vaccines and drugs. But both these agencies are chronically underfunded, and federal funding to prepare public health agencies and hospitals for disasters has declined since 2003.
The current crisis has revealed the costs of this penny-pinching. The Trump administration botched its response to the disease, having dismantled a National Security Council team charged with preparing for pandemics, dismissed early warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies, and downplayed the risks in public. But the failures of the CDC and the FDA in the early stages of the pandemic cannot be blamed entirely on the Trump administration, and the problems extend beyond the federal government. In California, for example, the state announced in 2006 that it would invest hundreds of millions of dollars to prepare for a large-scale medical emergency, stockpiling 50 million N95 respirators, 2,400 portable ventilators, and kits to set up 21,000 additional patient beds. But when the state faced a budget crunch just five years later, the initiative was one of the first items on the chopping block, saving a mere $6 million dollars — a rounding error in the context of a $129 billion annual budget. When the pandemic hit, California hospitals were forced to rent ventilators and ration N95 masks. Only 55 percent of nurses in the state reported having access to these masks in the early weeks of the crisis.
Nor is the situation much better at the international level. Every year, the United States holds military exercises with its allies. But there are no major, coordinated global disaster drills focused on non-military catastrophic threats. The international body in charge of enforcing the continued prohibition of bioweapons has an annual budget of just $1.4 million — less than the yearly cost of running the average McDonald’s restaurant. As Oxford University Professor Toby Ord has written, “humanity spends more on ice cream every year than on ensuring that the technologies we develop do not destroy us.”
Why, given the importance of these threats, has the U.S. government systematically neglected them? For one thing, politicians have strong electoral incentives to prepare for terrorist attacks, floods, or other such near-term threats, but they have little incentive to avert a crisis, no matter how devastating, that is unlikely to occur for several election cycles. Although crisis preparation is remarkably good value for money — $1 spent on preparedness prevents about $15 in future damage — politicians are unlikely to invest in such measures when voters may not see any immediate benefits. Even the best-run White House and National Security Council are under immense pressure to focus on the inevitable pressures of the news cycle.
Another problem is that averting catastrophic threats is what economists term a global public good: preventative measures (such as reducing carbon emissions) benefit the entire world, but it is difficult to incentivize collective action, and individual states will often find it too costly to act on their own. Finally, people tend to underestimate the probability of unprecedented events or ones that haven’t occurred in their lifetimes, while focusing on avoiding repeats of recent, more memorable tragedies. The British government, for example, had a detailed plan for how to respond to an influenza pandemic, developed after the swine flu pandemic of 2009-10, which stretched the British healthcare system to its limits. It had no such plan for other diseases, like a novel coronavirus, a failure that government ought to investigate as part of its planned public inquiry into its handling of the pandemic.
A Congressional Commission on Covid-19 and Catastrophic Risks
The United States must avoid falling into that same trap in the aftermath of Covid-19. It should ensure that it is prepared for the next pandemic, whatever form that might take, but it should take the opportunity to prepare for other catastrophic risks, too.
As a first step, Congress should set up a nonpartisan commission to evaluate the country’s response to Covid-19. A bipartisan group of senators and representatives, including Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), has just introduced a bill along these lines, proposing an independent, nonpartisan commission to investigate the pandemic response. Of course, as others have written, commissions are not perfect: they can run up against budgetary limits, fail to generate lasting policy change, or allow politicians to evade accountability for their actions. If set up properly, however, they can sidestep the worst excesses of partisanship by drawing on outside expertise and operating outside the media glare. They are, in the words of journalist James Fallows, one of our most useful tools for responding to complex policy issues “without immediately being shunted into talking-point posturing.”
Congressional commissions can take many forms, with differing membership criteria and investigative powers, and given today’s climate of intense polarization, any proposed commission may face an uphill battle in Congress. As Senators Collins and Menendez appear to recognize in their National Coronavirus Commission Act, to give it the best chance of success, Congress should model a Covid-19 commission after the 9/11 Commission — widely considered the gold standard — which examined the federal government’s failure to prevent the attacks, and which saw most of its recommendations ultimately become law. The 9/11 Commission had the power to subpoena witnesses and records, as well as hold hearings, take testimony, and receive evidence. It had ten members, five chosen by each party, and no current government employees. Instead, members were selected for their expertise in “law enforcement, the armed services, law, public administration, intelligence gathering, … and foreign affairs.” A Covid-19 commission should likewise be staffed with non-politicians with relevant expertise in public health, infectious disease, immunology, national security, economics, and risk analysis.
As for substance, a Covid-19 commission ought to investigate the failures and successes of the U.S. response. For example, it should look into the failure to adequately screen and quarantine foreign travelers, the mismanagement of the strategic national stockpile (most of the federal government’s 13 million N95 masks had expired before the pandemic began, for example), and the slow rollout of testing. It should also scrutinize public-health guidance, such as early statements from officials including Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Dr. Anthony Fauci downplaying the importance of wearing masks. And as the sponsors of the National Coronavirus Commission Act rightly emphasize, it should examine why some communities, especially those of color, were hit harder by the virus. Understanding the successes matters too. Operation Warp Speed, which was partly responsible for the record-speed production of effective vaccines, may provide a model for agile responses to future disasters.
In its recommendations, the commission should not shy away from bold ideas. The microbiologist Florian Krammer, for example, has proposed developing and testing vaccines for the viruses most likely to cause pandemics and then stockpiling doses in advance. Protecting humanity against the 50 to 100 most plausible pandemic viruses would, he estimates, cost $1 billion to $3 billion, pennies compared with the economic impact of Covid-19. Another suggestion, from BARDA under Director Rick Bright, is for the federal government to subsidize the cost of building vaccine-production facilities in exchange for the right to take them over, if necessary, when a pandemic hits. And the commission should not limit itself to America’s domestic response; it should also evaluate the United States’ leadership, or lack thereof, abroad.
Executive Branch Planning
Alongside a congressional Covid-19 commission, there are steps the executive branch can take independently to prepare for catastrophic risks. At the outset, the Biden administration should review existing U.S. strategy documents, such as policy directives on National Preparedness and the now-infamously disregarded “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents,” to ensure they are updated and identify potential gaps. The administration should also continue to bring together policymakers from across government to game out responses to disaster through tabletop exercises. Although their warnings were later ignored, Obama administration officials used just such an exercise in 2017 to brief the incoming Trump administration on the threat of an influenza pandemic.
The administration can use these exercises as an opportunity to stress test broader government and society-wide preparedness for severe shocks. One analogy is the Dodd-Frank Act, passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which allows the Federal Reserve to use stress tests to assess the health of the financial system. As part of that process, the Fed asks how banks would cope if the economy crashed, the unemployment rate spiked, and debt markets froze. Banks that lack sufficient capital to withstand the shock are forced to boost their reserves. To prepare for catastrophic risks, even without new legislation, the administration could bring together federal agencies, state and local governments, hospitals, financial institutions, and major businesses on a voluntary basis to assess how each would deal with the effects of a bioterrorist attack, another pandemic, or a nuclear accident. Weaknesses in food supply chains, for example, or shortfalls in reserves of medical equipment could be identified and addressed ahead of time.
The NSC also has a role to play. The Biden administration has restored the pandemics team at the NSC staff, which the Trump administration had dismantled, and it has elevated climate change by giving Kerry, the presidential envoy on climate, a seat on the NSC. But these are just first steps. The pandemics team should work alongside teams focused on a broader range of catastrophic risks, which could together evaluate a wide variety of threats and analyze not just their economic and military implications, but also their human, social, and environmental costs.
If any good is to come of this pandemic, it must be an increased awareness of America’s vulnerability to catastrophic threats. Through a congressional Covid-19 commission, a more far-sighted approach to risk management in the federal government, and greater global cooperation to address transnational risks, America has the opportunity to lead the world’s recovery from Covid-19 — and to prepare more effectively for the next threat, whatever form it may take.