Jhe cost of the COVID-19 pandemic is staggering, both in terms of human lives and economic activity. But Bill Gates thinks humanity is lucky the virus hasn’t been even more devastating.
“I have to say, given the death toll of this pandemic of 20 million worldwide, one million in the United States, and it could have been a lot more deadly. We were just lucky that the case fatality rate was around 0.2%,” Gates told TIME Senior Correspondent Alice Park at the TIME 100 Summit in New York on Tuesday.
While the official global death toll from COVID-19 is around 6.3 million, experts believe the true death toll is much higher. In May, the World Health Organization estimated that there were around 14.9 million additional deaths associated with the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
Gates warned that we shouldn’t count on similar luck in the next global pandemic. Given the destabilization of the COVID-19 pandemic, if another virus emerges with similar virulence but a much higher mortality rate — say 5% — it could be the “end of society,” Gates said.
And Gates thinks there could very well be a next time for many people alive today. “The risk of another pandemic in the next 20 years, whether natural or intentional, I would say, is over 50%,” he said.
Such a warning is especially troubling coming from someone like Gates, who has spent more than two decades fighting humanity’s greatest threats through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. During this time, Gates built a reputation as one of the world’s foremost optimists regarding the ability of science to change the world. And its investments have helped save countless lives, including accelerating the distribution of vaccines against diseases such as pneumococcal and rotavirus, funding the distribution of tools such as mosquito nets to limit the spread of malaria, and investing in research, particularly for vaccines against malaria.
Although Gates hasn’t been shy about sounding the alarm when the world is in danger, like in 2015 when he warned that the world was not ready for a viral outbreak, he is not doomsday. In fact, he has repeatedly argued that pandemics are not inevitable. Indeed, his latest book is called How to prevent the next pandemic. As Gates explained in his interview with TIME, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a unique opportunity to prevent another pandemic from happening again, but only if the world is prepared to make key investments.
Specifically, it means improving technology, including vaccines, treatments and diagnostics; building health systems; and improving global disease surveillance. In his interview with TIME, Gates stressed that these changes are needed in rich and poor countries alike, to ensure that scientists around the world have the resources they need to report burgeoning epidemics and to master them in just 100 days, a key window during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gates said, before the virus begins to spread exponentially.
To improve global disease surveillance, Gates is advocating for the creation of what he calls a “Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization” team, which would be made up of 3,000 infectious disease experts and would be managed by the World Health Organization. . Among other activities, the group would help lead epidemic drills in countries to test their preparedness.
Funding such a team would cost about $1 billion a year, Gates said. But, he noted, given the societal cost of COVID-19, it’s a bargain if it means avoiding another pandemic.
The TIME 100 Summit is the live event extension of the annual TIME 100 list of the world’s most influential people. It brings together leaders from the global TIME 100 community to shine a light on solutions and encourage action towards a better world. This year’s summit features a variety of influential speakers from a wide range of sectors, including politics, business, health and science, culture, and more.
Speakers at the 2022 TIME 100 Summit include Apple CEO Tim Cook, producer Mindy Kaling, filmmaker Taika Waititi, US President’s special climate envoy John Kerry, musician Jon Batiste, Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley, NBA champion, entrepreneur and philanthropist Dwayne Wade, former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, ACLU Deputy Director for Transgender Justice Chase Strangio, founder and Creative Director of Christian Siriano Christian Siriano, Founder and Creative Director of Brother Vellies Aurora James, Netflix Head of Global Television Bela Bajaria, Author and Poet Cathy Park Hong, Olympic Freestyle Skiing Champion Eileen Gu, Author , poet and president of the Mellon Foundation Elizabeth Alexander, filmmaker Betsy West, filmmaker Julie Cohen, senior vice president of BioNTech SE, Dr. Katalin Karikó, Ukrainska Pravda editor-in-chief Sevgil Musaieva and co-president of TIME and president and co-CEO of Salesforce Marc Benioff.
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