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This global threat keeps Bill Gates awake at night

Lucy Dean
Bill Gates, co-Chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, delivers a speech during a press conference in Tokyo, Japan, 09 November 2018. (Photo by Alessandro Di Ciommo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Bill Gates, co-Chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, delivers a speech during a press conference in Tokyo, Japan, 09 November 2018. (Photo by Alessandro Di Ciommo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Spanish influenza claimed the lives of an estimated 50 million people in 1918, picking off more people than World War I (16 million).

The flu is hard to eradicate, and it’s keeping Bill Gates awake.

“People rightly worry about dangers like terrorism and climate change (and, more remotely, an asteroid hitting the Earth). But if anything is going to kill tens of millions of people in a short time, it will probably be a global epidemic,” he wrote recently in his personal blog.

“And the disease would most likely be a form of the flu, because the flu virus spreads easily through the air. Today a flu as contagious and lethal as the 1918 one would kill nearly 33 million people in just six months.”

The flu is difficult to vaccinate against as there are so many different strains of the virus, and once you’ve had one strain your body focuses on that rather than the commonalities of all flu strains.

Just a few years ago, Australia saw its worst flu season since records began in 1993. It claimed the lives of 800 people across Australia and New Zealand.

The truth is that while we might consider the flu just bad enough to justify a day off work, a deadly strain of the virus could prove devastating to the health, economic activity and social fabric of society.

It’s not just the flu

The Black Death wiped out one-third of the population of Europe in the 1300s, through a combination of society’s poor understanding of disease and the plague’s speed and ease of transmission.

And while the odd case of the bubonic plague still emerges these days, modern medicine takes care of the problem quickly.

But the reality is that the world is severely under-prepared for a wide-scale pandemic, the World Economic Forum warned yesterday in its 2019 Global Risks Report.

It listed a viral disease outbreak as a major global risk. And to make matters worse, it’s not just nature with the capacity to concoct a biological nightmare.

“Revolutionary new biotechnologies promise miraculous advances, but they also create daunting challenges of oversight and control.

“Progress has made us complacent about conventional threats, but nature remains capable of “innovating” a pandemic that would cause untold damage.”

Disease outbreaks are also happening more frequently, with 12,012 outbreaks recorded between 1980 and 2013. In June last year, there were outbreaks of six of the eight diseases the World Health Organisation classes as a “priority disease”.

This was the first time this had happened in history.

“If any had spread widely, it would have had the potential to kill thousands and create major global disruption,” the World Economic Forum stressed.

What’s going on?

There are five key trends driving the risk.

We’re all travelling more, and germs and diseases are travelling with us. It means that an outbreak in a small village can be transmitted in a major city within 36 hours.

And these major cities have a lot of high-density living, also assisting in the ease of transmission. With 55 per cent of the world living in urban areas, this is a growing concern.

Deforestation and tree-cover loss has also been increasing and has been linked to nearly a third (31 per cent) of diseases outbreaks like Ebola and Zika.

As the planet heats up and more extreme weather events occur, insects like mosquitoes enjoy longer lifespans. It means Zika, malaria and dengue fever-laden bugs can travel further and inflict more damage.

Then there’s human displacement. The displacement of people through conflict, persecution, poverty or disasters means large numbers of people are moving to new locations. Given these new locations are often under poor conditions, the capacity for disease to spread is hugely increased.

“Among refugees, measles, malaria, diarrheal diseases and acute respiratory infections together account for between 60 and 80 per cent of deaths for which a cause is reported,” the Forum said.

Outside of the top five, misuse and overuse of antibiotics is eroding the efficiency of the medicine. Diseases like measles have also seen an unwelcome resurgence as a growing number of people choose not to vaccinate.

The financial cost

The 2003 SARS outbreak which killed 774 and infected 8,000 cost the global economy an estimated $US50 billion.

Similarly, the MERS outbreak in 2015 killed a relatively small 38 people, but cost an estimated $US8.5 billion.

Low-income countries bear the brunt of disease outbreaks, so the economic blows dealt by diseases like Ebola are even greater.

The problem is we’re just not prepared. While the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak galvanised some countries into action, most haven’t reached the minimum international standards on the capacity to detect, report and respond to major health threats.

“Thus when an outbreak hits, appropriate responses may be absent or delayed, and resources will be stretched to deal with other epidemic events that may emerge.”

‘The world will face another influenza pandemic’

The World Health Organisation doesn’t bandy words.

In its Global Health Risks report, released on Tuesday, it said there’s no question the world will face another influenza pandemic.

The only question is of severity.

“Global defences are only as effective as the weakest link in any country’s health emergency preparedness and response system.”

A deliberate attack

It’s a chilling thought, but we’re closer than ever to the weaponisation of deadly diseases.

While the entrance of the Biological Weapons Convention in 1975 largely stamped out state-sponsored development of biological weapons, the BWC is low on funds and has little power to force countries to demonstrate compliance.

A biological attack is still an unlikely scenario though, given the difficulties in controlling the attack and the dangers to the weapons manufacturers themselves.

But it’s not impossible, the World Economic Forum said.

A pandemic preparedness exercise carried out in the US last year involved a scenario in which a hypothetical terrorist group created and released a virus that had been modified to combine both a high ease of transmission with a high fatality rate.

“The results? A failed vaccine, tens of millions of deaths, incapacitated governments, overwhelmed healthcare systems and stock markets down by 90 per cent.

“This may have been a hypothetical scenario, but it is not in the realm of science fiction.”

Well, now I’m terrified. Is there any good news?

Bill Gates has launched a number of awards programs designed to encourage innovation in solving the challenges posed by malaria and influenza.

And the President of the World Economic Forum Børge Brende said he hopes the report will demonstrate just how high the stakes are.

“Renewing and improving the architecture of our national and international political and economic systems is this generation’s defining task. It will be a monumental undertaking, but an indispensable one.

“The Global Risks Report demonstrates how high the stakes are—my hope is that this year’s report will also help to build momentum behind the need to act.”

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