COVID-19 killed at least 7 million people worldwide and brought economies to a standstill. But even this looks like a seasonal cold next to the deadliest pandemic in history: the Black Death killed 25%–50% of everyone in Europe. 

The most extreme biological risks stem from synthetic biology. Progress in synthetic biology will enable many biomedical breakthroughs, but it will also give many thousands of individuals the ability to ignite new pandemics. Even prior to modern biotechnology, the Soviet biological weapons programme attempted to weaponise Yersinia pestis, the pathogen which caused the Black Death.

This threat can be addressed, and there are multiple fronts of attack. On the technological front, the effects of future pandemics could be mitigated by innovations like more effective PPE and improved indoor air quality. Widespread broad-spectrum testing could allow us to detect pathogens early, and thus limit their spread. In policy, improving governance of dual-use technology can reduce the risk of a catastrophe occuring. And logistically, better contingency plans for future pandemics will ensure that these solutions, and others, will be implemented effectively by our institutions when they are needed.

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