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Bill Gates on a global epidemic: ‘Time is not on our side’

Bill Gates speaks at TED2015 - Truth and Dare, TED University, March 16-20, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman/TEDBill Gates speaks at TED2015 - Truth and Dare, TED University, March 16-20, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED
Bill GatesBret Hartman/TED

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates took briefly to the TED stage in Vancouver on Wednesday to make an impassioned plea for becoming better prepared to fight a potential global flu epidemic.

Wearing a pink sweater and speaking for about five minutes, Gates noted that when he was a child the earth’s primary threat was thermonuclear war. “We spent plenty on nuclear deterrent,” he said, adding that we’ve spent relatively little to deter epidemics. His plea is that our new focus should be “not missiles but microbes.”

The threat of a global flu epidemic is real. Gates cited statistics that model an epidemic like the 1918 Spanish flu causing 33.3 million deaths worldwide in less than a year.

Gates’s short talk is a good reminder why it’s likely he’ll be remembered far more for his philanthropy than for having created Microsoft. He used snazzy graphics and clear one-liners to make his point. For example, he cogently explained why and how the recent Ebola crisis ultimately was contained with fewer than 10,000 deaths—a tragedy to be sure, but not a global catastrophe. Heroic work by health workers was part of the equation. That Ebola doesn’t spread through the air was a another factor, as was the fact that it largely was contained to rural areas in West Africa rather than cities.

For Gates, the model for fighting the war on germs is war itself. Modern armies, he noted, keep armed forces in reserve for future battles. They play war games, mapping out fuel and other logistics needs well in advance of seeing conflict. As such, the global health community needs to strengthen its early detection mechanisms, pay for a reserve health corps that can be quickly transported to the front lines of an epidemic, pair medical personnel with actual militaries, and play “germ games” including simulations to promote preparedness.

Gates didn’t use his time to specify how much he and his foundation are spending on this topic. He did point out that when President Obama visited the Centers for Disease Control and highlighted how hot protective suits worn by health workers become, Gates lent employees working on cooling vaccines to help design cooling methods for the suits. (The solution was adding ice packs to vests worn under the suits.)

He did suggest that the amount of money that needs to be spent is “modest” compared to the $3 trillion hit the global economy would suffer from an epidemic. Gates ended his alarming presentation calmly but urgently. “There’s no need to panic,” he said. “But time is not on our side.”

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