(Photo: Claudio Toledo)

At a discussion last week about epidemics, hosted by the Massachusetts Medical Society and the New England Journal of Medicine, Bill Gates warned of that a global pandemic could soon be on the horizon.

Unlike his usual optimistic self, Gates warned that “there’s one area though where the world isn’t making much progress, and that’s pandemic preparedness,” reports UK Business Insider

It’s very likely that a disease will arise, as new pathogens emerge all the time as the world population increases and humanity encroaches on wild environments. It is also becoming much easier for individual people or small groups to create weaponised diseases that could spread like wildfire around the globe. Gates even believes that a small non-state actor could build an even deadlier form of smallpox in a lab. It’s also important to bear in mind the consequences of living in an interconnected world. especially with people always hopping on planes, and crossing from cities on one continent to those on another in a matter of hours. 

In his presentation, Gates showcased 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. The disease in question is likely to be one we see for the first time at the start of an outbreak, like what we witnessed recently with SARS and MERS viruses. 

 

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“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.”

The last time the military attempted a simulated war game against a smallpox pandemic, the final score was “smallpox one, humanity zero,” said Gates.

However, he is optimistic that he thinks we could better prepare for the next viral or bacterial threat. In many ways, we are a lot better prepared for such an event, than we have ever been before. We now have antiviral drugs that can in many cases do at least something to improve survival rates, as well as antibiotics that can treat secondary infections like pneumonia associated with the flu.

We are also closer than we have ever been before to a universal flu vaccine; Gates announced during the presentation that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would offer $12 million in grants to encourage its development. This is without mentioning the progress we have made in securing better rapid diagnosis – an essential part of fighting a new disease is quarantine. This week, a new research paper touted the development of a way to use CRISPR to rapidly detect diseases and identify them using the same sort of paper strip in a home pregnancy test. 

Of course, Bill Gates isn’t the only uber-wealthy tech billionaires to get into funding healthcare and life science research initiatives.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, funded by the personal wealth of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan pledged $3 billion towards basic science research over the next 10 years. The ambitious goal is to cure all diseases, or prevent them or manage them, by the end of the century.

One of the first steps of the initiative is the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, an independent nonprofit created to connect scientists at Stanford, UC San Francisco, and UC Berkeley – and one of its projects is work that supports the broader Human Cell Atlas effort. They pledged $600 million in support of that Biohub.

 

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However, one thing we do need to work on is identifying the threat from a disease and coordinating a response at a much quicker rate, which the global reaction to the latest Ebola epidemic showed. 

In order for governments to help coordinate responses, Gates stressed a need for better communication between militaries and governments. He also believes that 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 expressed her concerns recently, claiming 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 interconnected world,” she said. 

It is clear these connections make us all vulnerable.