Talking with the Next Generation about the Next Pandemic

To stop the next pandemic, we need R&D for vaccines and drugs and state-of-the-art disease surveillance. We also need the next generation to answer the call to action.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something that’s both wonderful and worrisome: The vast majority of people alive today have never experienced a serious pandemic. While Ebola and Zika have raised awareness of the risks we face, few of us have encountered a dangerous, fast-moving infectious disease.

That’s why we at the Gates Foundation believe it’s essential to speak out — and speak often — about what the world must do to stop the next pandemic. Recently, I made the case for pandemic preparedness to university students attending the 2016 Northwest Model United Nations Conference.

It’s hard to imagine a more receptive audience than a group of 500 globally minded young people. So before I began my remarks, I asked the students to take a quick survey using their mobile phones.

“What is the top global security challenge of the 21st century?” I asked, and I offered four choices: Climate Change, Nuclear Proliferation, Terrorism, and Global Pandemic. Perhaps not surprisingly, Climate Change swept the field with 65 percent of the vote. To my disappointment, Global Pandemic finished a distant third with just 11 percent.

Making the Pitch for Pandemic Preparedness

While I agree that climate change is a critical issue, it’s worth exploring why Global Pandemic performed so anemically. One of the reasons is that pandemics are less visible than other crises. When war, terrorism and natural disasters strike, their effects are immediate and obvious. A flu outbreak is much harder to visualize.

That’s why it’s incredibly important to put pandemics in comparative perspective. So I told the story of the 1918 flu, which swept the world and killed between 30 and 40 million people in less than a year. By comparison — World War I, which was fought over four years — killed between 17 and 20 million people.

The economic effects of the 1918 pandemic were similarly staggering. One study estimates that it drained $3 trillion dollars from the global economy. That’s roughly equivalent to the devastation U.S. homeowners suffered during the Great Recession of 2008–10, a crisis whose impact is still being felt.

One could try to discount these analogies by pointing out that the 1918 flu happened nearly a century ago, and medical advances have made it harder for history to repeat itself. But technology is a two-edged sword. Air travel was in its infancy a century ago, and crossing the Atlantic by ship took nearly a week. Now eight million people fly every day, and a connection from Hong Kong to Los Angeles takes 12 hours. Pathogens have achieved unprecedented breakout potential, and if we look at recent respiratory illnesses such as SARS and H1N1, we know there are viruses at the edge of human society that could prove deadlier and more contagious than what we faced in 1918.

A Call to Action

So is there anything the world can do to stop future pandemics? The good news is yes, and I asked my audience to join me in advocating for three big changes in the way we do business:

1. We need better and faster ways to produce vaccines. Instead of the classic approach to identifying vaccine candidates, which relies on identifying protein antibodies and can take months or years, we need to capitalize on recent breakthroughs in genetics that allow us to map the DNA and RNA of pathogens in just a few weeks. We can do this by investing in next-generation R&D through the newly launched Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). (The Economist produced a great story that explains what CEPI is designed to do back in October.)

2. We need an effective global surveillance system that can track and respond to outbreaks as they emerge. This network can be built on the backbone of national health surveillance systems that are currently being launched in low- and middle-income countries under the CHAMPS program to measure the leading causes of child mortality. It will also require the development of new digital platforms that can integrate and analyze data drawn from dozens of countries.

3. We need to change the culture of knowledge management and data sharing. This means ensuring that scientists around the world have open access to published research and incentivizing scientists to share data on major causes of human disease and emerging threats to public health. To that end, I’m excited to announce that this week the Gates Foundation joined other major organizations in launching the Open Research Funders Group to promote unfettered access to scientific research.

At the end of my speech, I asked the students to take out their mobile phones and vote again. I’m not ashamed to admit that Climate Change won again, securing 48 percent of the vote. But I was thrilled that Global Pandemic tripled its share and surged into second place at 34 percent.

This gives me hope that our message can get through, and we count on the next generation to help us prepare the world for tomorrow’s challenges.