The Future of Major Pandemics

Amanda Luzzader

The world needs to prepare for pandemics in the same serious way it prepares for war.

In a TED Talk given in March 2015, billionaire software entrepreneur Bill Gates (among others) warned the world about the advent of virulent and deadly pandemics.

Referencing the Ebola virus outbreak, which had in 2015 claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people (primarily in Africa), Gates said this: “As awful as this [Ebola] epidemic has been, the next one could be much worse. The world is simply not prepared to deal with a disease—an especially virulent flu, for example—that infects large numbers of people very quickly. Of all the things that could kill 10 million people or more, by far the most likely is an epidemic.”

“In the case of biological threats, that sense of urgency is lacking,” added Gates. “The world needs to prepare for pandemics in the same serious way it prepares for war.”

Just a year later, Gates repeated his warning about a global pandemic to then newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump and others. Gates later expressed regret that he was not emphatic about his predictions. “I wish I had done more to call attention to the danger,” said Gates to the Wall Street Journal.

But by Gates’ own admission, he was only repeating the predictions of others, such as renowned scientist, professor, and policy analyst Vaclav Smil, who predicted a global pandemic in 2008.

With varying degrees of accuracy and relevancy, others predicted the advent of a deadly and worldwide pandemic like COVID-19, from scientists to government officials. These include infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm, virologist and flu expert Robert G. Webster, and Jeremy Konyndyk, who was a policy director under U.S. President Barack Obama.

As we all know, many governments, agencies, and populations were not prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, and many underestimated how deadly and disruptive it would be. As of May 2022, the disease is documented to have killed nearly 15 million people worldwide, much more than the 10-million figure mentioned by Gates and others.

So, what are the experts saying now? While the exact timing, nature, and impact of pandemics and other global events are impossible to predict with certainty, the fresh wave of hindsight provided by the COVID-19 pandemic has generated a surfeit of educated guesses.

Bill Gates, for one, is apparently through giving TED Talks and making phone calls to the White House. He’s moved on to writing an entire book about how to prevent (or at least mitigate) the next pandemic. In the aptly titled How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, Gates sets forth a global pandemic-prevention plan, complete with a pandemic “fire brigade,” a team of 3,000 experts stationed all around the globe who stand ready to analyze and contain viral outbreaks. The plan also includes “fire drills” to maintain readiness and constant research into emerging threats to human life. Gates cleverly suggests calling the initiative Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization (GERM), and he says it would cost the world a mere $1 billion per year (a meager sum compared to the estimated multiple trillions of dollars the pandemic has cost the world so far).

John Drake, a distinguished research professor at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, says the prediction of pandemics should be handled like weather forecasts.

“While we cannot predict in advance exactly how many hurricanes will occur this year or how bad they will be,” Drake wrote in Forbes, “we know with great confidence that climate change is a risk factor increasing the frequency and severity of hurricanes. Our knowledge of this and all the other risk factors for hurricanes allows us to make a statistical prediction for the coming season.”

“Similarly,” he explained, “we have known for decades that there are identifiable risk factors associated with disease emergence.” Drake said while the next pandemic cannot be exactly predicted, the likelihoods, locations, and severity of such events may be assigned certain probabilities. Planning and preparation can then be based on those probabilities.

So, how likely is it that another pandemic will occur? Where will it originate? How bad will it be?

International nonprofit organization Center for Global Development (CGD) says another pandemic could happen soon, and it could be worse than the COVID-19 pandemic, but its likelihood is not terribly high. A study sponsored by CGD suggested that the annual probability of a COVID-19-like pandemic during any given year could be somewhere between 2.5 and 3.3 percent, which equates to a 47–57 percent chance of a pandemic as deadly as COVID-19 in the next 25 years. Similarly, other experts warn that the world should brace for serious pandemics at least every 20 years.

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