WASHINGTON – For billionaire Bill Gates, the scariest recurring nightmare is a global pandemic, triggered by a bio-terror attack, that kills 33 million people in 200 days, and he’s trying to reach out to new National Security Adviser John Bolton about a vaccination plan he believe can prevent it or mitigate its catastrophic effects.
Bill Gates says the U.S. government is falling short in preparing the nation and the world for the “significant probability of a large and lethal modern-day pandemic occurring in our lifetimes.”
It could happen with the next great flu epidemic, he says – like the last one that occurred 100 years ago in 1918. That pandemic killed as many as 100 million worldwide, according to various expert analysis.
Gates says only the U.S. has the resources to prevent it, though it will require an organized global plan – one that currently does not exist.
The Microsoft co-founder now leads a foundation on global health, said he briefed President Trump, who encouraged him to follow up with top officials at the Health and Human Services Department, the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.
Gates made a presentation on his fears last week to the Massachusetts Medical Society.
If a highly contagious and lethal airborne pathogen like the 1918 influenza were to take hold today, nearly 33 million people worldwide would die in just six months, Gates noted in his prepared remarks, citing a simulation done by the Institute for Disease Modeling, a research organization in Bellevue, Washington.
Besides vaccines, Gates has other ideas about preparing for the worst.
“So, we need to invest in other approaches, like antiviral drugs and antibody therapies that can be stockpiled or rapidly manufactured to stop the spread of pandemic diseases or treat people who have been exposed,” he said in his speech.
While saying a flu epidemic could sweep the globe tomorrow, killing as many as 33 million people in its first 200 days, Gates’ nightmare is not even a worst-case scenario. Another leading flu expert says the next one could easily wipe out 300 million worldwide.
Dr. Jonathan Quick, chairman of the Global Health Council, said the flu virus is “the most diabolical, hardest-to-control, and fastest-spreading potential viral killer known to humankind.”
Gates and others say it could be spread deliberately and more rapidly with the advent of bio-terrorism.
Quick, meanwhile, paints a picture of medical supply shortages and energy systems crippled under the pressure and the collapse of the global economy.
“The most likely culprit will be a new and unprecedentedly deadly mutation of the influenza virus,” Quick said. “The conditions are right, it could happen tomorrow.”
Gates said that he’s optimistic that life keeps getting better for most people in the world through new immunization and interventions that are helping in eradicating diseases like polio and malaria. However, “there’s one area though where the world isn’t making much progress,” Gates said, “and that’s pandemic preparedness.”
He said that the world needs to prepare for pandemics in a way that military prepares for a war.
“In the case of biological threats, that sense of urgency is lacking,” he said.
“The next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus … or a super contagious and deadly strain of the flu,” Gates has warned.
Gates told one interviewer: “I rate the chance of a nuclear war within my lifetime as being fairly low. I rate the chance of a widespread epidemic, far worse than Ebola, in my lifetime, as well over 50 percent.”