Data Stories
Global Catastrophic Biological Risks: Index Finds Weak Global Capacity

Global Catastrophic Biological Risks (GCBRs), a term of art for those who study and work to prevent worst-case scenarios, are biological risks of unprecedented scale that could cause such significant damage to human civilization that they undermine its long-term potential. Left unchecked, high-consequence biological events can become GCBRs, leading to enormous suffering; loss of life; and sustained damage to national governments, international relationships, economies, societal stability, and global security.

Global trends in technology, travel, trade, and terrorism are increasing the risk of a globally catastrophic biological event, but decision makers are not yet planning for the types of events—such as those that could be caused by novel or engineered biological agents—with the potential for lasting, population-wide damage.

The Global Health Security Index includesa  focus on GCBRs, including 21 subindicators that are particularly relevant to national capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to GCBRs.

The GHS Index finds that national capacity in the areas most relevant to preventing, detecting, and responding to global catastrophic risks is generally weak. At least 75% of countries receive a low score in biosecurity, oversight for dual-use research, emergency response operations, linking of public health and security authorities, and medical countermeasure dispensing.

The subindicators in the GHS Index that are particularly relevant for preventing and responding to GCBRs are outlined below, along with a summary of country scores in each of these areas.

Global Health Security Index Subindicators

Indicators

Brief description

Countries with a low score

Countries with a medium score

Countries with a high score

1.3.1–1.3.5 Biosecurity 81% 15% 4%
1.4.1–1.4.2 Biosafety 66% 24% 10%
1.5.1–1.5.2 Dual-use research and culture of responsible science 99% 1%
2.2.2 Interoperable, interconnected, electronic real-time reporting systems 68% 32%
3.1.1 National public health emergency preparedness and response plan 70% 19% 11%
3.3.1 Emergency response operation 95% 5%
3.4.1 Linking public health and security authorities 77% 23%
3.5.1–3.5.2 Risk communication 62% 6% 33%
4.2.1 Capacity to acquire medical countermeasures 50% 50%
4.2.2 System for dispensing medical countermeasures during a public health emergency 89% 11%
4.6.1–4.6.2 Capacity to test and approve new medical countermeasures 41% 35% 24%
5.3.1 Participation in international agreements 11% 42% 47%
5.5.2 Financing for emergency response 39% 61%

Note: Where percentages are not shown, the questions asked for each of these subindicators showed only a binary answer and therefore no medium scores were calculated, or no value high score was achieved.

 

An analysis of the GCBR-relevant indicators reveals the following trends:

  • National-level capacity in the areas most relevant to reducing GCBRs is generally weak. For most of these GCBR-relevant subindicators, fewer than one-third of countries receive a high score.
  • The weakest GCBR-relevant areas, where at least 75% of countries receive a low score, are biosecurity, capacity to conduct effective oversight over dual-use research, emergency response operations, linking public health and security authorities, and medical countermeasure dispensing. The weakest GCBR-relevant area is oversight of dual-use research, for which 95% of countries receive a zero score.
  • Additional weak areas, where at least 50% of countries receive a low score, are biosafety, the existence of an interoperable electronic real-time reporting system, national emergency preparedness and response planning, risk communication, and the ability to acquire medical countermeasures.
  • The GCBR-relevant areas where national capacity is relatively strong are participation in international agreements and emergency response financing. More than 60% of countries receive a moderate or high score for these two subindicators.
  • At the same time, submission of Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs), required by the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is a weak point. Most countries (54%) have not submitted a CBM in the past three years. This is important for reduction of GCBRs because transparency is a potentially effective means of reducing suspicion and miscalculation in relation to compliance with the BWC.

Although the indicators highlighted in this section are important for preventing and mitigating GCBR-level events, they are not sufficient. This is due in part to the fact that the global health security community is still developing proposed actions and capabilities that will be needed to meaningfully reduce such profound risks, as well as effective ways to measure those actions and capabilities. A whole range of foundational capacities are also necessary for preventing, detecting, and responding to even small epidemics, and these would also be crucial for GCBR-scale events.