Global Risks

This is what Bill Gates had to say about epidemics, back in 2015

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 28JAN11 - William H. Gates III, Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USA is captured during the session 'Redefining Sustainable Development' at the Annual Meeting 2011 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 28, 2011.Copyright by World Economic Forumswiss-image.ch/Photo by Sebastian Derungs

We don't have a system to deal with the next epidemic, said Bill Gates during the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic. Image: World Economic Forum/swiss-image.ch/Sebastian Derungs

Samantha Sault
Writer, Washington DC and Geneva
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COVID-19

  • During the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Bill Gates said we were not prepared for the next epidemic.
  • We need a response system with an ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of health workers.
  • A World Economic Forum simulation in October 2019 showed we're unprepared for a pandemic, but it's not too late to work together on COVID-19.

“If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war – not missiles, but microbes,” warned Bill Gates during a TED Talk five years ago.”

“Part of the reason is we have invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents, but we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic,” he explained.

“We’re not ready for the next epidemic.”

Have you read?

The American philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft Corporation has long been warning of the potential for a deadly pandemic. During the 2015 Vancouver TED conference, which took place towards the end of the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, he explained why we weren’t prepared for it.

“The problem wasn’t that there was a system that didn’t work well enough. The problem was that we didn’t have a system at all,” he said.

As COVID-19 coronavirus spreads around the world, with more than 200,000 infected to date, we still don’t.

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The critical piece: health workers

Between 2014-2016, “the largest, most severe and most complex Ebola epidemic”, in the words of the World Health Organization (WHO), hit the West African countries Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone particularly hard. Globally, the outbreak infected more than 28,000 people, and killed more than 11,000.

As Gates explained, there were reasons why Ebola did not spread more. It does not spread through the air, and by the time most people are contagious, they’re usually already bedridden. Additionally, the virus did not get into many urban areas during this particular outbreak, which would have made it spread faster.

But primarily, he said, the containment was due to “a lot of heroic work by the health workers. They found the people and they prevented more infections”. This happened despite the fact there wasn't a large number of epidemiologists or medical teams “ready to go” to look at diagnostics and treatment approaches.

“Next time, we might not be so lucky. You can have a virus where people feel well enough while they’re infectious that they get on a plane, or they go to a market,” he said.

These are chilling words to recall as much of the world is hunkered down at home to avoid catching and spreading COVID-19 – which, as far as the experts know right now, spreads rather easily through respiratory droplets.

How we can prepare for the next epidemic

A large epidemic would require “hundreds of thousands of workers”, Gates had said.

“We can build a really good response system”, he continued, using technology like cell phones to push information to people quickly and satellite maps showing migration trends, as well as advances in biotechnology that “should dramatically change the turnaround time” for vaccines and therapeutics. Already, this science and technology is being deployed in the current coronavirus pandemic.

But these tools must be part of an overall global health system – and epidemic preparedness should look like war preparedness, with full-time workers and reserves ready to deploy rapidly, and to see how well people are prepared.

To deal with the next epidemic, Gates has suggested we need the following:

  • Strong health systems in poor countries.
  • Medical reserve corps, with lots of people with training and expertise ready to deploy.
  • Pairing the medical and military experts, so the military can provide logistics and secure areas.
  • Simulations, or “germ games” to see how well leaders are prepared.
  • Lots of advanced R&D in areas of vaccines and diagnostics.

“If there’s one positive thing that can come out of the Ebola epidemic,” Gates said in closing, “it’s that it can serve as an early warning – a wake-up call to get ready.”

There’s no time like the present.

We’re “woefully unprepared”

In October 2019, weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak was identified in China, the World Economic Forum, in conjunction the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, hosted a high-level simulation exercise for pandemic preparedness and response.

The exercise brought together business, government, security and public health leaders to address a hypothetical global pandemic scenario. It also included a live virtual experience to engage global stakeholders and members of the public.

What did we learn? We’re “woefully unprepared,” explained World Economic Forum President Børge Brende and Ryan Morhard, the Forum’s Community Lead for IO and IGWELS.

Months later, the participants – including leaders and infectious disease experts from China, Singapore, Australia and Nigeria, as well as executives from companies like Johnson & Johnson, Lufthansa Airlines and Marriott International – are putting what they learned into practice.

Discover

What is the World Economic Forum doing about fighting pandemics?

But it’s not too late, according to Brende and Morhard.

“COVID-19 is the whole world’s problem and the most serious threat to global health security in decades. If we don’t come together to ensure that the whole world is protected, we’ll never be protected ourselves. Together, as an informed, equipped, international community, we have an opportunity to make a difference.

“We can’t afford to act alone. But if we do act together, the impact of this crisis on health, as well as social and economic life, can be mitigated, and we can become more resilient to respond to future risks.”

To learn more about the World Economic Forum’s work to mobilize stakeholders in this critical time, visit the COVID Action Platform.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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