A rogue form of artificial intelligence creates a bioweapon and uses it to escape from human control.
It sounds like science fiction, but New Zealand researchers have presented the scenario as a forward-looking risk to illustrate new research about closing the country’s border.
The study, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, is a cost-benefit analysis of closing the border in the event of a severe global pandemic.
Taking the pre-emptive step could save tens of thousands of lives and huge health costs, and new legislation is needed for the Prime Minister and Cabinet to be able to make the call within a day, the researchers say.
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Nick Wilson, senior author and a professor of public health at the University of Otago in Wellington, said being an island nation had its drawbacks, but it would be a survival advantage in the event of a global pandemic.
“New Zealand is one of the few countries that could do things like border closures,” he said.
“You could even say for the sake of human survival that some of these places should be upgrading their capacity to manage these types of events in the longer term.”
The study, which used a costing tool developed by the Treasury, weighed up positive impacts of completely closing the border, such as lives saved and avoided health system costs, against negative costs such as lost tourism revenue.
Data from past influenza pandemics was used to calculate hospitalisations and deaths for two scenarios, one in which 12,973 people died if a disease breached the border and another more cataclysmic scenario where 129,730 died.
The estimated net benefit of successfully closing the border against the first scenario was $7.86 billion, climbing to a massive $144b for the second. This was based on a 180-day border closure, and excluded impacts on trade.
Dr Matt Boyd, lead author of the study, said increasing risks of new pandemics due to the growing density of human populations, among other factors, meant there was a need to look at different scenarios for better planning.
The study suggested the risk to human civilisation from infectious agents had never been greater. Advances to gene technology meant it was easier than ever before to produce synthesised pathogens, known as bioweapons.
Researchers in the United States demonstrated this in the early 2000s when they manufactured the polio virus using a gene sequence available on the internet and genetic material from a company selling mail-order DNA.
“There is even the scenario in future decades that a rogue form of artificial intelligence could develop such a bioweapon to allow it to escape from human control,” Boyd said.
The researchers found closing the border could make sense for New Zealand in some extreme pandemic situations, and that doing so, they said, would far outweigh disruptions to the economy and tourism.
New Zealand’s influenza pandemic plan, prepared by the Ministry of Health, includes border management as part of a six-phase approach to preparing for, minimising and recovering from a pandemic.
The plan includes a number of border control measures, including limiting or restricting aircraft from areas of concern, screening passengers, and placing people in quarantine.
Ministry emergency management director Charles Blanch said if an international health emergency was declared New Zealand’s response would be in line with World Health Organisation recommendations.
Measures to control disease spread at borders was important, but evidence showed a rapid response at the source was the most effective protection against international spread of diseases, he said.