Bill Gates and the next outbreak

I was recently reminded of this by seeing again a 2015 TED talk by ex-Microsoft founder Bill Gates. I think the work that Bill and Melinda Gates carry out through their Foundation is exceptional. Compare their use of enormous wealth with that of others.

Bill Gate’s talk was called -
The next outbreak? We’re not ready.

He outlined the recent
Ebola virus outbreak in 2014 (which continued until 2016 long after his talk) that killed more than 11,000 people mainly in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

Terrible though this outbreak was, we were ‘lucky’ in that for a number of reasons, including the fact that the Ebola virus is not spread through the air, it did not spread world-wide like the 1918-1919
Spanish flu outbreak that killed around 40,000,000 people.

Bill Gate’s thesis is that our greatest risk of global catastrophe is not nuclear war but the spread of an infectious virus – “not missiles but microbes”. The experience of the Ebola outbreak showed we are not yet ready to counter this risk.

However, as Bill Gates says, we do have the ability to set up a strong response system. We have the benefits of high levels of science and technology, mobile phones to get information out quickly, and satellite maps to trace people’s movements.

The way that we organise for war provides the mechanisms we need. We have full time soldiers waiting for action, reserves to come into play if things escalate, and mobile units that can respond rapidly to any outbreaks. War games are carried out to test logistics, communications and other essential activities.
Several actions are identified as necessary.

  • Develop strong health systems in poor countries where mothers can give birth safely, children can get their vaccines, and where outbreaks can be spotted early on.

  • Set up a medical reserve core of trained people ready to go at short notice.

  • Pair these people with the military to take advantage of their organisational and logistic skills.

  • Run “germ games” not “war games” to see where the pinch points and gaps are.

  • Continue to carry out research into vaccines and diagnostics.


The World Bank calculates that if a world-wide flu epidemic occurred, global wealth would go down by $3,000,000,000,000 ($3 trillion) and there would be many millions of deaths.

Bill Gates sees the Ebola outbreak as a wakeup call to get moving. An excellent and thought provoking talk.