Skip to main content

Center for Health Security publishes first working definition of Global Catastrophic Biological Risks

Authors say broadly shared definition and understanding of special category of biological risks could help focus collective efforts, direct resources where needed, and communicate more clearly about what these challenges are and how to prevent and respond to them

Center News


July 27, 2017 – The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has published the first working definition of Global Catastrophic Biological Risks (GCBRs) to place new focus on a special category of biological risks that have received too limited research and effort given their potential for harm to humanity.

The GCBR definition appears in a larger Center analysis of GCBR challenges in the July/August 2017 issue of Health Security, along with 10 companion GCBR commentary pieces written by a range of leading scientists and public health experts. Presented together as a special feature, the article and companion pieces endeavor to refine collective thinking on GCBRs and advance protections against them by initiating a conversation on the authors’ underlying concepts and assumptions.

In their article, Center authors define GCBRs as:

Those events in which biological agents—whether naturally emerging or reemerging, deliberately created and released, or laboratory engineered and escaped—could lead to sudden, extraordinary, widespread disaster beyond the collective capability of national and international governments and the private sector to control. If unchecked, GCBRs would lead to great suffering, loss of life, and sustained damage to national governments, international relationships, economies, societal stability, or global security.

Others have earlier identified nuclear war, climate change, and artificial intelligence as potential global catastrophic risks.

“We see GCBRs as a special category of [global catastrophic risks and] biological threats that deserve careful study and action to counter them, because of the extraordinary consequences they would have for humanity and because they are potentially tractable,” wrote the Center authors. “A broadly shared definition and understanding of these risks could help focus collective efforts, direct resources where needed, and communicate more clearly about what these challenges are and how to prevent and respond to them.”

Potential GCBRs include future flu pandemics, novel strains of contagious pathogens, biological accidents, threats to food supplies, or artificial organisms.

Coauthors of the article are Senior Associates Monica Schoch-Spana, PhD, Amesh Adalja, MD, Gigi Gronvall, PhD, Tara Kirk Sell, PhD, Jennifer B. Nuzzo, DrPH, Eric Toner, MD, and Crystal Watson, DrPH; Anita Cicero, JD, the Center’s deputy director; Analyst Diane Meyer, RN, MPH; Senior Analysts Sanjana Ravi, MPH, Matthew P. Shearer, MPH, and Matthew Watson; and Tom Inglesby, MD, the Center’s director.

Earlier this year, the Center launched a portfolio of GCBR projects to analyze and prevent specific risks, identify technical solutions, and foster a community of scientists and practitioners committed to building the field. The Center’s GCBR work is supported by the Open Philanthropy Project.

Read the article and commentaries here. A quote from each commentary author is included below.


“Because we think that novel pathogens—especially those that could be engineered in the coming decades—pose a particularly acute global catastrophic risk, we are very interested in tools and systems that are most useful for mitigating those specific risks.”
— Jaime Yassif, Open Philanthropy Project

“[GCBRs] do not come with warning labels declaring them as such. If in the next 50 years there is a single biological event that kills 100 million people, there is a good chance the magnitude of that event will not be recognized from the start.”
— Marc Lipsitch, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

“As with many low-probability, high-consequence risks, the uncertainties involved in GCBRs are massive. But we would argue that high uncertainty brings with it high marginal value of information. Given the humanitarian stakes, even modest research efforts on GCBRs are of very high value.”
— Piers Millett and Andrew Snyder-Beattie, Future of Humanity Institute

“GCBRs quickly become local in an increasingly globalized world. Yet, the world is still unprepared—particularly if faced with an airborne pandemic with a high rate of spread and mortality.”
— Elizabeth Cameron, Nuclear Threat Initiative

“[The Center’s] definition considers secondary impacts of the biological event by explicitly emphasizing how certain biological events can destabilize national and international security.”
— Dylan George, B.Next, an IQT Lab

“As we prepare to confront global catastrophic biorisks, we must consider the possibility that new threats from the fungal kingdom will be the future wars.”
— Arturo Casadevall, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

“We believe there is a need for more studies of past experience with natural pandemics and pandemic threats, in order to elucidate the complex relationship among pathogen, host, and population immunity, as well environmental conditions that together shape the mortality impact.”
— Lone Simonsen, George Washington University, and Cecile Viboud, Fogarty International Center

“Emerging technologies bring us closer to creative solutions to the world’s pressing problems: food shortages, climate change, infectious disease. What are scientists’ responsibilities in the successful regulation of these powerful new methodologies?”
— Nancy Connell, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School

“The fragility of our global public health systems suggests the potential for otherwise manageable biological risks to become GCBRs. It will be critical to devise resilient systems to accommodate to a wide variety of eventualities and, wherever possible, prevent such events from occurring.”
— Megan Palmer, Bruce C. Tiu, Amy S. Weissenbach, and David A. Relman, Stanford University

“In thinking about GCBRs, we need to understand how a catastrophe could arise at the intersection of biological and social systems.”
— Maurizio Barbeschi, World Health Organization


About the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security:
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security works to protect people from epidemics and disasters and build resilient communities through innovative scholarship, engagement, and research that strengthens the organizations, systems, policies, and programs essential to preventing and responding to public health crises. The Center is part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and is located in Baltimore, MD.

About Health Security:
Health Security is the bi-monthly peer-reviewed journal of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. The Journal explores the issues posed by disease outbreaks and epidemics; natural disasters; biological, chemical, and nuclear accidents or deliberate threats; foodborne outbreaks; and other emergencies. It offers important insight into how to develop the systems needed to meet these challenges. The Journal is a key resource for practitioners in these fields, policymakers, scientific experts, and government officials.

ISSN: 2326-5094 • Online ISSN: 2326-5108