America has acted too slowly on the emerging COVID-19 pandemic and missed its chance to avoid mandatory shutdowns sure to damage its economy, Bill Gates said yesterday.

“Everybody should have taken notice back in January,” the Microsoft co-founder told TED founder Chris Anderson during a TED Connects event streamed online.

“There’s the period between where we realized it was transmitting and now, where we should’ve done more.”

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

With one in three Americans now following “stay at home” orders, Gates recommended that the national shutdown last between six and 10 weeks to be effective.

“It’s disastrous for the economy, but the sooner you do it in a tough way, the sooner you can undo it and go back to normal,” he said.

He believed such stringency in the crisis' early weeks would have been more realistic than the prevailing stance.

“It’s very tough to say to people: ‘hey, keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner, we want you to keep spending because there’s some politician that thinks GDP growth is what counts,’” he said.

“It’s hard to tell people during an epidemic…that they should go about things knowing their activity is spreading this disease.”

Gates emphasized that the country must quickly roll out more comprehensive testing for COVID-19 – currently lagging behind many other nations – and apply it intelligently.

“In terms of testing, we’re still not creating that capacity and applying it to people in need,” he said.

“The testing thing has got to be organized, has got to be prioritized. That is super, super urgent.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged up to $100 million to fight the virus worldwide.

The philanthropist warned that containing the virus might prove more difficult in developing countries, “particularly in the southern hemisphere [where] the seasonality is large”.

“The ability to isolate — when you have to go out to get your food every day and earn your wage, when you live in a slum where you’re very nearby each other — it gets very hard to do. I think it’s way more difficult as you move down the income ladder than it is in a country like the United States.”

In early March, Gates wrote on his blog GatesNotes about how the world should respond to the pandemic. He urged leaders to "to save lives now while also improving the way we respond to outbreaks in general".

And in a previous 2015 Ted Talk viewed more than 16 million times on YouTube, Gates sounded the alarm on the world’s lack of preparedness for the next global disease event.

“We’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic”, he said. ”We’re not ready for the next epidemic.”