Bill Gates: A Bigger Threat Than Nukes Or Climate Change
Bill Gates isn’t sleeping well these days.
And it’s not the threat of nuclear war or man’s inability to grapple with climate change keeping him up.
It’s the thought of a bioterror attack or a pandemic of biblical proportions.
A global pandemic spurred either by natural causes or an engineered virus would be more dangerous than a nuclear bomb or climate change.
“These are the things that could kill hundreds of millions — they are probably the only thing that can kill a billion,” Gates says.
Obviously most famous for founding Microsoft, Bill Gates now leads a multibillion-dollar foundation focused on global health. So he has a good idea of how deadly pandemics can be, and how quickly they can spread.
Frankly, Gates says, the United States isn’t ready.
America’s last epidemic simulation took place in 2001. And bipartisan congressional panels gave failing marks to both the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“We got lucky with Ebola,” Gates said in an interview at the Munich Security Conference. “On the spectrum of infectiousness it is way below average.”
A terrorist-engineered virus, he said, would be worse.
Indeed, with today’s technology, it would be relatively easy to engineer a new flu strain by combining a version that spreads quickly with one that kills quickly. And unlike a nuclear war, such a disease would not stop killing once released.
“The probability goes up every year,” says Gates. “The tools and sophistication required to create artificial virus has gone down from a nation-state capability to a handful of biology people buying off-the-shelf stuff.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website lists near 50 bioterror agents as potential ingredients in a bioterrorist’s cookbook. The list includes anthrax, plague, smallpox, botulism, cholera, Ebola, to name a few, as well as multiple food and waterborne diseases.
And again, no country in the world is prepared to deal with them in a crisis. Governments around the world are out of touch with the companies that make vaccines, international health departments don’t coordinate with one another, and militaries are either not capable or not ready to respond.
“You have to cross-train the military for this,” says Gates. “If you want to enforce a quarantine, if you want to get somewhere when the airlines are shut down… We need a new arsenal of weapons, antiviral drugs, antibodies, vaccines and new diagnostics.”
No doubt, communication and coordination are paramount to keeping pandemics from spreading. So, too, is technology. It’s imperative that the government help develop and employ private sector innovation to keep the public safe.
And to a certain extent it already is.
For example, we recently profiled a company that grew out of a government laboratory. It manufactures a device that detects dangerous pathogens — harmful diseases like E. coli, bird flu, listeria, and mad cow — before they spread.
It can be used on food, water, and air.
In fact, it’s already been deployed by the Department of Homeland Security to monitor the air in New York’s Penn Station for anthrax.
And the FDA just issued a mandate that will drastically increase its presence in farms, fisheries, restaurants, and other food suppliers.
It’s worth checking out because, as Gates suggests, preparation is paramount.