Bill Gates used his time at the podium during the recent Munich Security Conference to issue a stark warning. He sounded an alarm to tell people that a terrible pandemic is coming and the world is not ready.
I have worked on pandemic planning for more than a decade and was a leader in the DuPont response to the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. Gates is right on both counts: A pandemic is coming and we’re not ready.
There are many lessons to consider in light of Gates’ remarks. A critical one is that people tend to confuse uncertain timing with uncertain probability. We don’t know exactly when the next pandemic will occur and that uncertainty seems to blur into whether it will occur.
The experts tell us that there is no uncertainty over whether a pandemic will occur. A catastrophic disease affecting the entire human population is highly probable. Only the timing is uncertain. Some say we are overdue for a major pandemic.
Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the start of one of the worst pandemics in recorded history. Estimates of deaths from what was erroneously tagged as the Spanish Flu range from 20 million to 50 million to perhaps as high as 100 million. The exact number will never be known, but what is known is that the vicious disease spread to all corners of the globe and was particularly deadly for healthy young adults. Most flu outbreaks kill the very young, the very old and the immune compromised. A pandemic flu can break those rules. Healthy people in their 20s can be especially at risk.
Bill Gates warns that the next pandemic could result from a naturally developing pathogen or could be the product of terrorists. Terrorist groups are certainly well aware of the power of such a weapon of mass destruction. The point is not missed by terrorist groups who seek more and better ways to spread destruction on the earth. No doubt some are already working on a disease that they can unleash.
If the 1918 flu reached all corners of the globe, imagine how today the spread will be accelerated in our interconnected world. An asymptomatic traveler can board a plane in Jakarta, Indonesia, and arrive in London, Tokyo or Washington, D.C. before anyone realizes the threat. From Heathrow, Narita or Dulles airports, the virus can exponentially multiply its reach with blinding speed. Unaware travelers will carry misery and death via planes to far-off cities, taxis to hotels, and from foreign destinations straight to their own homes.
Importantly, we know that fear rides ahead of the most serious outbreaks of the disease. As soon as news of the disease becomes known, the traditional and social media will erupt. Fear will explode everywhere. The dread of getting the disease can cause people to act in ways that have major consequences of their own. Suddenly supplies of critical materials are in short supply. We saw this in the Ebola epidemic as hospitals and other entities tried to obtain the protective garments that were most needed by the heroic healthcare workers who were on the frontlines of the battle to control the horrendous sickness in West Africa.
Financial impacts also develop ahead of actual disease outbreaks. Imagine the impact on the Indonesian currency, the rupiah, if that country is flagged as the epicenter of the pandemic. That currency will crash with countless secondary and tertiary implications. Every country to which the disease spreads will suffer similar consequences beyond the direct effect of the pathogen.
I fear that the world learned the wrong lesson from the 2009 pandemic. For many, the takeaway lesson was: That wasn’t so bad! Many people believe the alarm was unfounded. Just like in the fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, the next alarm may go unheeded. Recall that in the fable, the wolf does actually come but by then the townspeople have decided to ignore the warnings.
A better lesson from the 2009 experience should have been that the World Health Organization was not capable of addressing a pandemic. Although changes have been made, my impression is that the WHO is still not up to the task.
Like few other threats, a pandemic demands cooperation across geopolitical borders. Cooperation among countries will be vital. Likewise, companies, government agencies and other organizations will all need to rely on each other to mount the best response.
Preparedness must occur at all levels. Guides are available to help organizations do so. Unfortunately, two things are highly probable: 1. Another pandemic will occur, and 2. The world will not be ready.
I am sure Bill Gates does not want to have to say, “I told you so.” Nonetheless, he will have the right.