As if the world didn’t have enough problems already, here comes billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates warning us of another potential doomsday scenario — bioterrorism. The worst part about it is that it might not even be a natural catastrophe but a manmade one, possibly a bioterror attack ‘originating from a terrorist’s computer screen’ — likely a reference to reports from intelligence agencies in the U.S. and the U.K. about Islamic states developing bio weapons at their bases in Iraq and Syria.
The founder of software giant Microsoft Corp (NASDAQ:MSFT) — who has been busy funding research and running a charity focused on global health improvement — delivered his disturbing warning at the recent Munich Security Conference. He said that scientific and technological advancements are making it easier for terrorist groups to turn simple viruses into weapons of mass destruction. That if governments do not take the bioterror threat seriously, in the next 10 – 15 years, we might be facing a pandemic that can wipe out millions of people.
Gates believes that bioterrorism is as much of a threat, maybe even more, than chemical weapons or nuclear war. Which is why he is concerned that governments aren’t taking it as seriously.
Speaking to the Telegraph prior to the conference, Gates was quoted as saying: “Natural epidemics can be extremely large. Intentionally caused epidemics, bioterrorism, would be the largest of all. With nuclear weapons, you’d think you would probably stop after killing 100 million. Smallpox won’t stop. Because the population is naïve, and there are no real preparations. That, if it got out and spread, would be a larger number.”
During the conference, he elaborated further. He said that according to epidemiologists, whether it happens naturally or is spread artificially (through a terrorist’s hand), an airborne-pathogen that’s fast-moving can infect and kill over 30 million people in less than a year. He also mentioned that although we haven’t experienced any ‘deadly global pandemic’ for a while, it doesn’t mean we’re never ever going to. And that even if we do experience a pandemic that may not be as serious as the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak (which killed more than 50 million people all over the world), we still need to prepare for such an eventuality.
He added that the technology which can help protect us from naturally occurring biological threats is exactly the same technology that can be used to initiate artificially created bio attacks. A terrorist can make use of genetic engineering to create their own version of small pox, or maybe an extremely contagious and deadly flu strain. To defend ourselves, we have to make use of the same technology to fight against the genetically engineered viruses.
Aside from early detection, routine surveillance, vaccine development, improvement of public health systems in the most vulnerable countries, Gates also pointed out the need for drills and exercises, much like how nations prepare for war. He said: “This includes germ games and other preparedness exercises so we can better understand how diseases will spread, how people will respond in a panic, and how to deal with things like overloaded highways and communications systems…Getting ready for a global pandemic is every bit as important as nuclear deterrence and avoiding a climate catastrophe.”