Peeter Laas

Research Fellow in Molecular Ecology @ University of Tartu / TalTech
11 karmaJoined Working (6-15 years)


I work on the code of life.


Amazing thread, Vasco! Your post hits like a fresh blast of reason in the middle of a doomsday, conspiracy-like fringe. I think you are on the right track by addressing 'the risk hype.'

I have a Ph.D. in gene technology and have served on the bioadvisory board of an EU member state as a representative of environmental protection agencies for 13 years. To be honest, the “Biosecurity & Pandemics” topic enticed me to join the EA Forum, and I have been having a hard time understanding how this fits with EA.

There are only a few things more wasteful and frankly counterproductive to spend money on than mitigating obscure pandemic/bioweapon threats. It could turn out to be useful, but it lands smack in the middle of other very high-risk, low reward investments. For example, the US has spent something like $40-50 billion dollars since 2001 on anthrax research alone – a disease that only has a few cases in the US and a few thousand globally per year. Incredibly miserable investment-reward balance. I know that working with some random adenovirus or Mycobacterium tuberculosis doesn’t sound so sexy as running bioreactors with Y. pestis in BSL4, but would be orders of magnitude more effective for humanity.

This brings me to my second point: the incident with the Ames strain from USAMRIID in the 2001 anthrax letters perfectly illustrates the self-fulfilling prophecy generated by circulating these agents in labs/industry in order to develop countermeasures. In fact, such activities and initiatives are the main force increasing the risk of existential catastrophe imposed by these agents. Thereby, I cannot see reaching anywhere near the 1% chance of existential catastrophe from biological causes by 2100 without spreading corresponding infrastructure and agents unnecessarily. Even covert bioweapon development by nation-states is much smaller a problem to deal with.

And thirdly, I would address this notion – probably doing some heavy lifting to prop up the chances of existential catastrophe in some eyes – that any day now, some nut will self-educate on YouTube or some skilled professional with lab access will flip and construct a DIY bioweapon capable of posing a critical threat to society. I will give it some rope in terms of somebody starting that “secret project” not being too far-fetched. Can happen, people can be very weird! However, I can see difficulties even if the person gains access to free and unlimited NA printing resources. There is a reason why the Soviet Union had tons of anthrax and smallpox – you are going to need a large-scale, sophisticated delivery system for the initial release. Otherwise, the list of victims will include only the bioterrorist or close people, and it will never be more than a regional incident.

Not to mention all the DIY genetic engineering projects that people are much more likely to work on. From doing home gene therapy on a pet (or on oneself) to larger-scale synthetic biology projects to enable a yeast to synthesize the original special ingredient of the original version of Coca-Cola. Moreover, during times when environmental activism swings to many strange places, the next iteration of Ted Kaczynski can easily be a person that seeks to modify the biosphere in order to protect it from humanity – e.g., an agent that impacts fish, making them unedible for people. Or plastic-degrading bacteria released into the ocean.

Don't get me wrong - I do think we have to prepare and stay vigilant. There will be a new pandemic - only question is when and which agent. Hopefully we don't manifest it artificially out of fear. And way to go, Vasco, for being the tip of the spear to unmask delusion of grandeur behind of this 'risk reasoning'.

Thank you for posting, Alix! I am a non-native English speaking scientist and I have often wondered about it in the context of my own productivity. Working on a manuscript that has 17 previous draft iterations can easily make a biologist think about linguistic bias in academia.

This is actually the good news that I wanted to share - this linguistic injustice within "thought leaders" is an issue that we are already working on. The general idea is that non-native English speakers spend more effort in conducting scientific activities (reading and writing papers and preparing presentations etc), but the experience/insight of the writer overpowers native-speaker status.

A thought leader has to have ideas. Being able to form grammatically correct and aesthetically pleasing sentences is just the final packaging. In the end, it is the community that determines how important the presentation part actually is. Therefore, it has been also interesting to read the replies.

Furthermore, I think in case of "lectures, presentations, chairing etc" native speakers have only a minute advantage. Yes, when I was living in US (and I started 'thinking in English') - presenting got easier! However, the main skill comes with experience. If you done it hundreds of times - so you don't get nervous, can get/keep the attention of the audience and find ways to explain/emphasize key points in that sea of information.

Maybe I am wrong. Cheers!

Clean water is used for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and personal hygiene. Cascading effects that clean water provides to reduce child mortality are very well understood. If you look at the mortality stats for ages 1-4 in Rwanda ( and assume reduction of both leading causes of death (lower respiratory infections - 38% and diarrhoeal diseases - 25%; 2019), then cutting mortality by 33% (ages below 5) sounds about right.