Global Catastrophic Biological Risks: Toward a Working Definition


Global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs) are hazards caused by biological agents that result in massive disruptions to society. The authors analyze historical GCBRs, such as H1N1 and the Black Death, and their interactions with other complex aspects of society. The rapid depopulation caused by the Black Death, for example, generated “broad, lasting, and complex effects in Europe: laborers, now in scarce supply, wielded more power in relation to the landed class and had more access to richer soils; the persecution of Jews intensified, including mob violence, expulsion, and confinement to ghettos; the church’s institutional authority weakened, and an anti-clerical movement burgeoned.” The authors also explore how slight alterations to the historical biological risks (e.g., a mutation or greater air travel) could have produced a global catastrophe.


Monica Schoch-Spana, Anita Cicero, Amesh Adalja, Gigi Gronvall, Tara Kirk Sell, Diane Meyer, Jennifer B. Nuzzo, Sanjana Ravi, Matthew P. Shearer, Eric Toner, Crystal Watson, Matthew Watson, and Tom Inglesby

Publication Date

1 August 2017


Health Security (vol. 15, no. 4)



Resource Type

Academic Journal Article

Systems Addressed

Geopolitics and International Security • Health

Resource Theme

Catastrophic and Existential Risk • Futures Studies
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