Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Gates Foundation philanthropist offered some thoughts and a dire warning Saturday during a panel discussion, “Health Security: Small Bugs, Big Bombs” at the Munich Security Conference in Germany.
Here are some excerpts of Mr Gates introductory speech:
“It’s no coincidence because war zones and other fragile state settings are the most difficult places to eliminate epidemics or provide even the most basic health care. This is also where we see many epidemics starting, for example–Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and cholera in the Congo Basin and the Horn of Africa.
“So to fight pandemics, to improve health we have to uplift incomes and we have to have stability.”
Gates continues and it starts to get scary–“We also face a new threat that the next epidemic has a good chance of originating on a computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus or a contagious and highly deadly strain of the flu.
“The point is, we ignore the strong link between health security and international security at our peril. Whether it occurs by the quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists, show through their models that a respiratory-spread pathogen would kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. And there is a reasonable probability of that taking place in years ahead.
“It’s hard to our minds around a catastrophe of that scale, but it has happened. In 1918, a particularly virulent flu strain called the “Spanish flu” killed over 50 million people, more than World War I.
“The fact that a global pandemic has not occurred in recent history shouldn’t be a mistake for evidence that it won’t occur.
“Even if the next pandemic isn’t on the scale of the 1918 flu, we have to consider the social and economic turmoil that even a smaller size epidemic would create. We saw this with Ebola as it got into the urban centers of the three affected countries. And it was only by diverting polio resources that we avoiding it getting into the urban areas of Nigeria.
“Where even this disease, which was nearly as infectious as the average pathogen, would have caused incredible chaos.”
“The good news is that by using advances in biotechnologies, we can create new vaccines, drugs and diagnostics to help epidemics from spreading out of control. And many of these things we need to do, whether it’s surveillance, or R&D or doing training exercises to look at these emergencies that are also very helpful for what we need to do to improve health on an ongoing basis.
“So we need a new arsenal of weapons. These are antiviral drugs, antibodies, vaccines and new diagnostics. Today vaccines take too long. Typically, a number of years…up to 10 years for a new vaccine.
“And yet, to really curb a fast moving airborne pathogen, we have to get this down to a few months.”
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