Bill Gates has said that the world needs to prepare for a future “war” against a global disease capable of killing over 33 million people in under a year.
Speaking at a conference in Berlin, Mr Gates said that the risk of a global pandemic was at an all time high, and technology would be crucial in fighting the coming disease.
He explained: ‘We don’t know it will happen but it’s a high enough chance that one of the lessons of Ebola should be to ask ourselves: are we as ready for that as we should be?
‘A good comparison is that we prepare ourselves for war – we have planes and training and we practise.’
He said this included building teams of volunteers who are ready to mobilise quickly in a public health emergency, similar to schemes developed in the countries hit hardest by Ebola such as Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which registered almost 9,000 deaths in the last year.
‘Look at the death chart of the 20th century,’ he told Vox this week.
‘I think everybody would say there must be a spike for World War I. Sure enough, there it is, like 25 million.
And there must be a big spike for World War II, and there it is, it’s like 65 million.
‘But then you’ll see this other spike that is as large as World War II right after World War I, and most people, would say, ‘What was that?’ Well, that was the Spanish flu.’
The deadly flu virus attacked more than one-third of the world’s population, and within months killed more than 65 million people – three times as many as the World War I – and did it quicker than any other illness in recorded history.
Researchers recently discovered the pandemic virus arose shortly before 1918, when a human H1 virus, which they believe had already been circulating in the human population since about 1900, picked up genetic material from a bird flu virus.
Most influenza outbreaks disproportionately kill juvenile, elderly, or already weakened patients; in contrast the 1918 pandemic predominantly killed previously healthy young adults.
Microsoft’s co-founder originally made the comments at a donor conference for the Gavi alliance which delivers vaccines to poor countries in January.
Calling vaccines the ‘biggest saver of lives’ worldwide, the 59-year-old praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel for hosting the conference and making vaccinations a priority of her G7 presidency this year.
However, he said he was ‘concerned’ about an anti-vaccination trend in the West, due to exaggerated fears of risks associated with the jabs, that was leading to dangerous outbreaks.
‘Our focus is on the poor children where you have millions that die of vaccine-preventable disease. It’s unfortunate that you’re not getting 100-per cent coverage in the rich countries,’ he said.
‘They’re choosing to potentially infect somebody who can’t protect themselves,’ he said, noting the renewed spread of illnesses such as measles and pertussis (whooping cough).
‘I’m glad there are people who are championing reducing these misunderstandings in rich countries because of the risk that creates.’
Mr Gates – ranked by Forbes magazine as the world’s richest man with a net worth of some $80 billion (£52 billion) – said the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation already distributes about $4 billion each year to help the world’s neediest.
It is also a major contributor to the Gavi alliance, which Tuesday drew pledges of $7.5 billion to help immunise 300 million more children in developing countries over the next five years.
And he continued technology is a crucial asset in his foundation’s field work, seen most recently in a drive against polio.
‘We use satellite photos to find out where people are living, we use a GPS tracker with a cell phone so that we can see if the vaccine team is going to every place they’re supposed to go, we do statistical analysis within a few days to see if there’s any kids that we missed,’ he said.
‘Measurement is a pretty natural private sector thing… Innovative new technologies are going to make it possible to see what’s going on with far less cost.’
Mr Gates said moving from the world of big business to working in villages in the developing world where people ‘have no idea who I am’ had been satisfying.
‘I was super proud of the work I did at Microsoft..it let me carry the message of software out into the world in a very enthused way,’ he said.
‘Now I have a different message, my wife and I, that we should be generous to the poor. To the degree I have visibility hopefully I’m using that in a positive way.’