In 2015, Bill Gates gave a TED Talk about how unprepared we are for the next pandemic and the need to prepare. “We haven’t,” Gates said at the 2022 TED Talk on Tuesday. “That speech was watched by a lot of people, but 90% of the views were after it was too late.”
COVID-19[feminine] been the next pandemic, but it will not be the last; experts have previously warned that, without action, pandemic outbreaks could occur more often. In his TED talk this year, Gates said COVID-19 could be the last pandemic — “if we take the right steps.” (His book, How to prevent the next pandemic, will be released on May 3, 2022.)
These steps involve investing $1 billion a year in a group of firefighter-like responders he calls the GERM team — for global outbreak response and mobilization — as well as more investment in R&D to diagnostics and in healthcare systems around the world.
GERM would be a 3,000-person response team whose only priority, Gates said, is pandemic prevention. In his vision, GERM teams would be made up of a range of specialists from epidemiologists and data scientists to logistics experts as well as those with communication and diplomacy skills. The GERM idea is just a proposal that, in the coming months, Gates hopes to gain some kind of global consensus; his book on pandemic prevention draws on expert knowledge as well as his own experiences fighting disease through the Gates Foundation. It will take a debate to determine how to organize and finance it, he added, while stressing that the financial burden should fall on the richer countries with the money to finance it.
“Like the firefighters, the GERM team was doing drills,” he said. “When we want to have a rapid response, we want to make sure that we have all the elements in place and that we can act very quickly. Practice is the key. If there is not an immediate epidemic on which the If the GERM team would need to come together, they could focus on other infectious diseases as a second priority, he suggested.
But he imagines GERM as a team ready to respond quickly to any signs of an outbreak, working with different countries to strengthen their local health systems. “We need to know if a lot of people present with a new type of cough,” he says. GERM teams would examine this and be able to quickly identify a new pathogen. Due to the exponential spread of viruses, the first 100 days are essential to keep the infection rate low. “The mission is to stop epidemics before they become pandemics,” he said. This speed is crucial: if governments had been able to stop the spread of COVID-19 in its first 100 days, he said, it would have saved more than 98% of the lives lost. “When COVID-19 hit, we were like Rome before there were fire buckets and firefighters.”
Investments in diagnostics like LumiraDx test devices, which offer direct and qualitative detection, and factories to rapidly deploy vaccine production, are also needed, although Gates stressed that vaccines, the “miracle” of the COVID-19 pandemic, should not play the primary role. “We want to stop an epidemic before we have to launch a global vaccination campaign,” he said.
That preparation would be expensive — creating GERM teams alone, which Gates is proposing to the World Health Organization, would cost roughly more than $1 billion a year — but failing to prevent the next pandemic would cost even more. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says COVID has cost world governments dearly nearly $14 trillion. “We have to spend billions to save trillions,” Gates said.