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Infectious Diseases

Updated 20 March 2020

Bill Gates warned of an impending epidemic that would affect the world – he was chillingly accurate

“If we start now, we can be ready for the next epidemic,” the tech mogul advised in his 2015 Ted Talk.

“When I was a kid, the disaster we worried about most was a nuclear war. If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war,” Bill Gates said during his 2015 Ted Talk titled "The next outbreak? We’re not ready".

His predictions were chillingly on point, including his observation that the world would not be ready for an epidemic, mainly because we’ve invested very little in our healthcare systems to stop it.

As of Thursday, there were more than 190 000 coronavirus cases in over 130 countries, with just over 7 800 deaths confirmed, the World Health Organization (WHO) report indicated.

‘We should be concerned’

The 64-year-old Microsoft co-founder iterated over the years that although we should be concerned about an impending epidemic that would involve "microbes, not missiles", he believed that building a really good response system could be the solution. 

After all, we have the benefits of all the science and technology and the advances in biology that should dramatically change the turnaround time of examining a pathogen and being capable of manufacturing drugs and creating vaccines that are fit for that pathogen, he said. In his talk he highlighted a few significant measures we should have in place by the time the virus hits the world:

  • Strong health systems in poor countries
  • Medical reserve corps – enough people who’ve got the expertise and are "ready to go" 
  • Take advantage of the military’s ability to move fast, do logistics, and secure areas by pairing the medical reserve corps with them
  • Plenty of advanced research and development (R&D)

If history has taught us anything, it’s that there will be another deadly global pandemic, Gates said, adding that the 2014 Ebola outbreak – which claimed the lives of 11 315 people, as figures up to January 2016 indicate – was a wake-up call, and although the world was too slow to respond then, we should aim for a coordinated global approach that will be ready when we need it.

But we might not have been ready to respond when the Covid-19 virus struck in December 2019, causing it to spread at lightning speed and the world to be in the grip of a global outbreak. While the Covid-19 virus has surpassed its cousin SARS in the total number of confirmed cases, reports indicate that it has a lower fatality rate. However, it might be too soon to accept these figures as final.

New coronavirus a 'once-in-a-century pathogen'

In a 2017 op-ed for Business Insider, Gates repeated the sentiment saying that the next pandemic could be “a super contagious and deadly strain of the flu”, and that “in the case of biological threats, that sense of urgency is lacking.

"The world needs to prepare for pandemics in the same serious way it prepares for war," he said.

In another op-ed article for the New England Journal of Medicine, the business tycoon called the coronavirus a "once-in-a-century pathogen", and speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Seattle last month, he added that the impact of the new coronavirus could be “very, very dramatic”, particularly if it spreads to areas like sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. And it has.

In countries such as South Africa, for instance, concern about coping with the outbreak is high particularly in poorer communities where families in informal settlements live in cramped, single rooms and share communal outdoor toilets with several neighbours, reports the BBC.

"We don't have money to buy hygiene [products] to protect ourselves. We're living in high risk," electrician Nicholas Mashabele, a resident of Alexandra township, told the publication.

Unfortunately, a majority of  the world's nations do not have enough teams of epidemiologists to save the Earth's population, as Gates pointed out, but we are seeing the world coming together to work on treatment plans for infected individuals. Thus far, more than 84 000 people have recovered from the virus, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, and scientists are working at record speed to develop a vaccine.

As of 19 March, 150 cases have been confirmed in South Africa. Keep up to date with the latest information here.

Image: Thierry Monasse/Getty