This interview is part of a series in which Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) & Center for Climate and Security (CCS) interns interview members of the CSR and CCS Advisory Boards, along with other key voices in the security field. In today’s post, Isabella Caltabiano interviews Robert Palay, member of the Council on Strategic Risks Board of Directors, and the Harvard Advanced Leadership Coalition, as well as Chairman of Tactics II Equity LLC, a life science investment and advisory firm. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Isabella Caltabiano (IC): Why is attention to biosecurity important?
Robert Palay (RP): As the current COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates, pathogens are a significant worldwide strategic threat. Whether they arise naturally, accidentally, or intentionally pathogens can cause tremendous worldwide damage. We currently possess the technology, industrial base, and governmental expertise to make pathogen based biothreats obsolete. CSR is uniquely positioned to help create the public/private partnerships necessary to protect against this rising pathogenic threat.
IC: What inspired you to pursue the field?
RP: I am the former founder, Chairman of the Board and CEO of three biotech companies. About 15 years ago, while serving on the board of one of these companies, George Church, educated me on the nature of this threat. I believe that those of us who understand the threat have an obligation to educate others and do what we can to mitigate the threat.
IC: How have you seen COVID-19 elevate the biosecurity field and draw attention to this issue?
RP: Whether a pathogenic biothreat comes from nature or accidentally or intentionally from man, it’s the same threat. What COVID-19 has done is made it apparent to the world how serious novel viruses can be. Until COVID-19, I don’t think people understood that a novel virus could have as big of an impact on our way of life. The majority now recognize that we need to take the appropriate measures to address this threat.
IC: What do you consider the most important thing the Council on Strategic Risks is currently working on?
RP: We live in a world today where the technology, industrial base, and government expertise exists to stop pandemics before they begin. The most important project I am working on with the Council on Strategic Risks is making biothreats obsolete. I do not know enough about nuclear or climate change threats to make a comparison. However, making biothreats obsolete is relatively straight forward. What we need to do is implement a system that effectively uses all the tools we have available today to detect and respond to viruses and other pathogens quickly.
IC: What issue keeps you up at night?
RP: What keeps me up at night is our vulnerability to weaponized pathogens in the hands of bad actors. My real concern is the spread of a novel virus, something humans have never seen before from nature or manmade, which we cannot quickly respond to…something like SAR-CoV-2 but more deadly.
IC: What advice would you give to someone trying to enter the field today?
RP: Biosecurity is a rapidly growing field. The speed of innovations is extremely rapid. It is an interdisciplinary field, with entry points from biology, epidemiology, medicine, computer science, physics, government, and business. It’s a young emerging field which makes it an exciting time to dive into the work.