Bill Gates: Bioter­ror­ism could kill more than nu­clear war, but no one is ready

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - More at wash­ing­ton­ blogs/world­views

A ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered virus is eas­ier to make and could kill more peo­ple than nu­clear weapons — and yet no coun­try on Earth is ready for the threat, Bill Gates warned world lead­ers Satur­day.

No one on his panel at the Mu­nich Se­cu­rity Con­fer­ence ar­gued with him.

“The next epi­demic has a good chance of orig­i­nat­ing on a com­puter screen,” said Gates, who made a fortune at Mi­crosoft, then spent much of it fight­ing dis­ease through his global foun­da­tion.

Whether “by the work of na­ture or the hands of a ter­ror­ist,” Gates said, an out­break could kill tens of mil­lions in the near fu­ture un­less gov­ern­ments be­gin “to pre­pare for these epi­demics the same way we pre­pare for war.”

His co-pan­elists shared some of the same fears.

“Dis­ease and vi­o­lence are killing fewer peo­ple than ever be­fore, but it’s spread­ing more quickly,” said Erna Sol­berg, the prime min­is­ter of Nor­way. “We have for­got­ten how cat­a­strophic those epi­demics have been.”

She re­called the Black Death, which she said killed more than half her coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion and cre­ated a 200-year re­ces­sion in Europe.

“It’s not if, but when these events are go­ing to oc­cur again,” said Peter Salama, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion. “We need to ramp up our pre­pared­ness.”

Gates, who founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion with his wife in 2000, has been wor­ry­ing about the world’s abil­ity to stop a deadly pan­demic since Ebola killed thou­sands two years ago, while gov­ern­ments and mil­i­taries strug­gled to stop it from spread­ing through West Africa.

Be­fore his panel Satur­day, Gates told the Tele­graph: “It would be rel­a­tively easy to en­gi­neer a new flu strain” by com­bin­ing a ver­sion that spreads quickly with one that kills quickly. Un­like a nu­clear war, such a dis­ease would not stop killing once re­leased.

At Mu­nich, Gates ran down all the ways that the world’s great pow­ers were un­pre­pared: gov­ern­ments out of touch with the com­pa­nies that make vac­cines, in­ter­na­tional health de­part­ments out of touch with one an­other, and mil­i­taries that may not have con­sid­ered re­spond­ing to a bi­o­log­i­cal threat.

“Who’s this al­ter­nate group that’s go­ing to deal with the panic?” Gates said. “Who’s got the planes and the bud­get? Maybe the fire depart­ment?”

While some oth­ers on the panel — “Small Bugs, Big Bombs” — fo­cused on the threat of nat­u­ral dis­eases, Gates called for “germ games” sim­u­la­tions, bet­ter mon­i­tor­ing to spot out­breaks early, and sys­tems to de­velop vac­cines within weeks — rather than the 10-year lead time he said was more com­mon.

“We need a new arse­nal of weapons, an­tivi­ral drugs, an­ti­bod­ies, vac­cines and new di­ag­nos­tics,” he said.

The Mu­nich pan­elists named only a hand­ful of coun­tries work­ing fast enough to iden­tify and ad­dress the threat.

“Rwanda is a leader,” Gates said. “If an epi­demic started there, we’d see it quickly.”

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