As the world’s greatest minds examine the epidemic, it’s worth remembering that Bill Gates has repeatedly warned that ‘humanity isn’t ready for the next pandemic’.
The Microsoft founder warned everyone during a speaking engagement at a conference on Friday that a Covid-19 outbreak in Africa could overwhelm the continent’s health services and trigger “10 million deaths,” reported The Telegraph.
Gates’ warning at the 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Seattle on Friday came hours before Egypt’s Ministry of Health confirmed that a 33-year-old male foreigner who flew into Cairo International Airport had tested positive for the virus. Authorities said the infected man had 17 contacts and many interactions at the airport before testing positive.
The impact could be “very, very dramatic,” particularly if it spreads to areas like sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, the billionaire philanthropist said, addressing a standing-room-only audience during his keynote address at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Seattle. He called it “potentially a very bad situation.”
“This is a huge challenge,” Gates said. “We’ve always known that the potential for either a naturally caused or intentionally caused pandemic is one of the few things that could disrupt health systems, economies and cause more than 10 million excess deaths.”
Gates pointed to advances in molecular diagnostic tools as one promising safeguard against such outbreaks.
“We’re on the cusp, in science, of being able to make good tools to do the diagnosis, provide vaccines to provide therapeutics including antivirals,” he said.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently committed $100 million to fighting coronavirus, as part of its broader efforts in global health.
“Our foundation is very engaged in terms of the relationships we have with governments and the private sector to orchestrate and provide resources and hopefully contain this epidemic,” he said.
One of the big challenges, Gates noted, is the infectious nature of coronavirus earlier in the cycle of the disease, impacting the general population. That’s in contrast with earlier challenges such as Ebola, which were more dangerous to health workers attempting to treat people who were sick.
Key questions, he said, are “will this get into Africa or not, and if so, will those health systems get overwhelmed?” Later, he added, “This disease, if it’s in Africa, is more dramatic than if it’s in China,” noting that he was “not trying to minimize what’s going on in China in any way.”
Margaret Hamburg, chair of the AAAS board of directors, cited the past outbreaks of diseases such as SARS and Ebola, and the cycle of “crisis, concern and then complacency,” that often follows them. She asked Gates what it will finally take to ensure that adequate preventative measures are in place.
Referring to advances and price reductions in molecular diagnostic tools, Gates responded, “certainly the good news is that just the plain old horizontal advances in how we make these tools will help us.”
“We have a plan to get those machines fairly pervasive in developing countries,” he said, referring to the work of the Gates Foundation and its partners. Within a decade, the world will be better off due to greater capacity for diagnostics. The ability to create new vaccines should help as well, Gates said.
“There’s been a huge under-investment in therapeutics, particularly antivirals,” he said, adding that he believes China could “step up” in that regard once the current crisis passes. “Hopefully,” he said, “that’s not too long from now.”