Bill Gates thinks a coming disease could kill 30 million people within 6 months — and says we should prepare for it as we do for war
- The next deadly disease that will cause a global pandemic is coming, Bill Gates said on Friday at a discussion of epidemics.
- We’re not ready.
- An illness like the pandemic 1918 influenza could kill 30 million people within six months, Gates said, adding that the next disease might not even be a flu, but something we’ve never seen.
- The world should prepare as it does for war, Gates said.
If there’s one thing that we know from history, it’s that a deadly new disease will arise and spread around the globe.
That could happen easily within the next decade. And as Bill Gates told listeners on Friday at a discussion about epidemics hosted by the Massachusetts Medical Society and the New England Journal of Medicine, we’re not ready.
Gates acknowledged that he’s usually the optimist in the room, reminding people that we’re lifting children out of poverty around the globe and getting better at eliminating diseases like polio and malaria.
But “there’s one area though where the world isn’t making much progress,” Gates said, “and that’s pandemic preparedness.”
The likelihood that such a disease will appear continues to rise. New pathogens emerge all the time as the world population increases and humanity encroaches on wild environments. It’s becoming easier and easier for individual people or small groups to create weaponized diseases that could spread like wildfire around the globe.
According to Gates, a small non-state actor could build an even deadlier form of smallpox in a lab.
And in our interconnected world, people are always hopping on planes, crossing from cities on one continent to those on another in a matter of hours.
Gates presented a simulation by the Institute for Disease Modeling that found that a new flu like the one that killed 50 million people in the 1918 pandemic would now most likely kill 30 million people within six months.
And the disease that next takes us by surprise is likely to be one we see for the first time at the start of an outbreak, like what happened recently with SARS and MERS viruses.
If you were to tell the world’s governments that weapons that could kill 30 million people were under construction right now, there’d be a sense of urgency about preparing for the threat, Gates said.
“In the case of biological threats, that sense of urgency is lacking,” he said. “The world needs to prepare for pandemics in the same serious way it prepares for war.”
Stopping the next pandemic
The one time the military tried a sort of simulated war game against a smallpox pandemic, the final score was “smallpox one, humanity zero,” Gates said.
But he reiterated that he’s an optimist, saying he thinks we could better prepare for the next viral or bacterial threat.
In some ways, we’re better prepared now than we were for previous pandemics. We have antiviral drugs that can in many cases do at least something to improve survival rates. We have antibiotics that can treat secondary infections like pneumonia associated with the flu.
We’re also getting closer to a universal flu vaccine; Gates announced on Friday that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would offer $12 million in grants to encourage its development.
And we’re getting better at rapid diagnosis too — which is essential, as the first step toward fighting a new disease is quarantine. Just this week, a new research paper in the journal Science touted the development of a wayto use the gene-editing technology Crispr to rapidly detect diseases and identify them using the same sort of paper strip used in a home pregnancy test.
But we’re not yet good enough at rapidly identifying the threat from a disease and coordinating a response, as the global reaction to the latest Ebola epidemic showed.
There needs to be better communication between militaries and governments to help coordinate responses, Gates said. And he thinks governments need ways to quickly enlist the help of the private sector when it comes to developing technology and tools to fight an emerging deadly disease.
Melinda Gates recently said that the threat of a global pandemic, whether it emerges naturally or is engineered, was perhaps the biggest risk to humanity.
“Think of the number of people who leave New York City every day and go all over the world — we’re an interconnected world,” she said.
Those connections make us all vulnerable.
By Kevin Loria
…….a weaponized disease may be the biggest threat to humanity — here’s how worried you should be
Win McNamee / Getty Images
- The biggest global risk Melinda Gates can imagine is “most definitely” a bioterrorism attack, she said in an interview at South by Southwest.
- Melinda and Bill Gates have both repeatedly warned that the world is unprepared for an infectious disease outbreak, and experts agree that the risk is high.
- If you look at recent disease outbreaks around the globe, you can see how far we have to go in terms of preparation.
The biggest global risk that Melinda Gates can imagine within the next 10 years is “most definitely” a bioterrorism attack.
“A bioterrorist event could spread so quickly, and we are so unprepared for it,” she told Vox founder Ezra Klein in an interview at South by Southwest over the weekend.
“Think of the number of people who leave New York City every day and go all over the world — we’re an interconnected world.”
It’s scary enough, she said, that she doesn’t like to talk about it.
But she and Bill have been warning people that one of the biggest threats out there is one of the oldest: infectious disease, which can emerge naturally or be human-made (as in the case of bioterrorism).
As the two wrote in their recently released “Goalkeepers” report, disease — both infectious and chronic — is the biggest public health threat the world faces in the next decade. And although Bill Gates said on a press call at the time that “you can be pretty hopeful there’ll be big progress” on chronic disease, we are still unprepared to deal with the infectious variety.
Bill Gates has repeatedly stated that he sees a pandemic as the greatest immediate threat to humanity on the planet.
“Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year,” Gates wrote in an op-ed for Business Insider last year. “And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10-15 years.”
A very real risk
Gates is right about the gravity of that threat, according to experts in the field.
George Poste is an ex officio member of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, a group created to assess the state of biodefense in the US.
“We are coming up on the centenary of the 1918 influenza pandemic,” he told Business Insider. “We’ve been fortunately spared anything on that scale for the past 100 years, but it is inevitable that a pandemic strain of equal virulence will emerge.”
The 1918 pandemic killed approximately 50 million people around the globe, making it one of the deadliest events in human history.
David Rakestraw, a program manager overseeing chemical, biological and explosives security at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Tom Slezak, the laboratory’s associate program leader for bioinformatics, also agree with Gates.
“Both natural and intentional biological threats pose significant threats and merit our nation’s attention to mitigate their impact,” they told Business Insider in an email.
It’s possible that a major outbreak could be intentionally created as the result of a biological weapon, but Poste thinks a serious bioterrorism attack is less likely due to the complexity of pulling something like that off.
It’s very likely, however, that a highly dangerous disease would naturally emerge — and the consequences of that pandemic would be just as severe.
In New York City’s hazard mitigation plan, the city indicates that a bioterror attack could have an impact on a similar scale as that of a nuclear weapon. And they say that the likelihood of bioterror attack is far greater.
Regardless of how a disease starts to spread, preparedness efforts for pandemics are the same, according to Poste. And the recent outbreaks of Zika and Ebola have highlighted the need for more heightened disease surveillance capabilities. We’re still getting a handle on the health effects of Zika— and it seems like the mosquito-borne disease may be even more severe than we thought.
Experts have long advocated for better ways to recognize emerging threats before they become epidemics or pandemics. Poste also said we need to improve rapid diagnostic tests and get better at developing new therapeutics and vaccines — something highlighted as a weakness in the Gates’ “Goalkeepers” report as well.
To prepare fpr a bioterrorism event, Melinda Gates said we should have an organization like the CDC but with an exclusive focus on bioterror, creating safety standards and monitoring the globe.
Until that happens, that threat remains far more real than many of us realize.
BY Kevin Loria
March 12, 2018