The rise of fake news highlights the erosion of long-standing institutional bulwarks against misinformation in the internet age. Concern over the problem is global. However, much remains unknown regarding the vulnerabilities of individuals, institutions, and society to manipulations by malicious actors. A new system of safeguards is needed.
The Harvard Kennedy School’s Managing the Microbe project under the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs is the focal group within Harvard University for global biosecurity.
Our vision is a world that sees strengthened global security and resilience by reductions in dangers posed by regional epidemics or global pandemics of natural or manmade infectious organisms.
Our mission is to generate scholarship and train leaders at large on the impact and consequences of such infectious disease outbreaks in terms of security and sovereignty, economics and trade, public health and social welfare, and government and ethics.
The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs is known as ground zero for the serious study and impactful development of policies to safeguard us from the threat of weapons of mass destruction. From Nunn-Lugar to the Nuclear Security Summits, the Center’s faculty, fellows, and practitioners have helped conceive and codify the strategies and policies that have substantially reduced the risks of nuclear danger in the post-Cold War era.
Today, consistent with its purpose to build a more secure, peaceful world, the Center is establishing a new project to confront the growing threat from biological weapons and natural disease outbreaks. These interrelated threats are increasing in global reach and devastation, exploiting a vacuum of biosecurity leadership in the science and technology, global health, and academic and think tank communities. Our nascent Managing the Microbe Project aspires to fill this critical need.
The Managing the Microbe Project is committed to addressing these vulnerabilities:
Lethal fast lane: Terrorist groups who seek to kill the most people in the most spectacular fashion—with the least cost and fewest security barriers—are likely to pursue an ancient tool of warfare that’s become notably more accessible in recent years: biological weapons.
Bioterrorism tipping point: The recently accelerating drop in costs and wider distribution of the same game-changing gene editing and related technologies that are opening up personalized medicine now portend the development of an on-demand marketplace for commissioning the world’s most deadly pathogens.
Jurassic Park problem: New technology allows scientists to recreate from scratch difficult-to-access pathogens—including smallpox, which has been eradicated from nature although its genetic sequence is available online—to be used as weapons.
Nuclear-scale fatality rates: Both evolving natural pandemics and weaponized pathogens can devastate populations across entire continents. One gram of anthrax can kill millions if perfectly distributed.
Impossible to control: Large-scale bioterrorism can now be plausibly launched by a so-called lone wolf, and with little to no detection. The knowledge required to carry out a deliberate biological attack is globally available and comparatively undemanding to access.
Weak safeguards: Conspicuous vulnerabilities exist even in the most advanced nations. Between 2014 and 2015, for example, U.S. defense and civilian agencies were found to have inappropriately stored, ineffectively deactivated, and otherwise mishandled both anthrax and the smallpox variola virus.
We will focus on five key lines of effort:
- Foster cross-sectoral integration among governments, the private sector, and international and non-governmental organizations;
- Promote a global goal of consolidating and securing dangerous pathogens to reduce biological terrorism and other risks;
- Break down barriers that are impeding adoption of technologies and medical advances central to improving biosecurity;
- Advocate for updating norms to keep pace with rapid scientific and technical advancements; and
- Lead the development of a robust non-governmental track of activities in support of the Global Health Security Agenda.
To launch Managing the Microbe, we have initiated a campaign to raise at least $5 million for our initial five-year period. These funds will help us:
- Create a faculty group across Harvard schools with expertise in medicine, law, business, government, biological sciences, and public health.
- Recruit annual Fellows whose work will advance public education and policy setting by national governments and international governing bodies (e.g. World Health Organization Pandemic Preparedness 2015).
- Enlist an advisory panel to provide vision, guide the agendas of the core faculty group and Fellows, and develop opportunities.
- Recruit a skilled executive director.