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Bill Gates warned of a deadly pandemic for years — and said we wouldn't be ready to handle it

Bill Gates vs. epidemics
Bill Gates vs. epidemics 07:03

For many of us, the coronavirus pandemic seemed to come out of nowhere. Institutions and people around the world have been caught completely off guard by its impact. But for years, Bill Gates has been warning about the risk of a deadly pandemic much like this one — and raising the alarm that our societies weren't prepared to handle it.

In a CBS News interview three years ago, the billionaire philanthropist talked about the potential for a worldwide health crisis and the fact that we are largely unprepared.

"The impact of a huge epidemic, like a flu epidemic, would be phenomenal because all the supply chains would break down. There'd be a lot of panic. Many of our systems would be overloaded," Gates told CBS News from the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "But being ready for epidemics of different sizes, there's a lot more we should do." 

He said one particular area of focus should be increasing work on vaccine development. "The idea is to take a new way of building vaccines that could let us develop, in less than a year, a novel vaccine," he said. "It gives us a chance of being able to respond in time when the next epidemic hits."

Gates has been working on global health issues for years through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and recently pledged $100 million to help combat coronavirus

In the 2017 interview, he spoke about the creation of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) — a project founded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the governments of India and Norway, the medical research charity Wellcome and the World Economic Forum — as a platform to prepare ahead and "outsmart epidemics."

Gates spoke about the risk again in 2018 during the Massachusetts Medical Society's annual Shattuck Lecture, when he noted that life has gotten better for most people in the world but that very little progress has been made in pandemic preparedness. "This should concern us," he said. 

"Given the continual emergence of new pathogens, the increasing risk of a bioterror attack, and how connected our world is through air travel, there is a significant probability of a large and lethal, modern-day pandemic occurring in our lifetimes."

In his lecture, Gates said the world needs to prepare for pandemics the way the military prepares for war.

"This includes simulations and other preparedness exercises so we can better understand how diseases will spread and how to deal with things like quarantine and communications to minimize panic. We need better coordination with military forces to ensure we can draw on their mobilization capacity to transport people, equipment, and supplies on a mass scale."

In an interview with the BBC in 2016, Gates said he was crossing his fingers that a deadly flu epidemic would not strike in the next 10 years because the world is "a bit vulnerable right now." He noted that the Ebola and Zika crises were proof that systems for responding to global health emergencies aren't adequate.

He also gave a grim warning in a 2015 TED Talk titled "The Next Outbreak? We're Not Ready," predicting: "If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it's most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war." Though the world had recently succeeded in containing a deadly Ebola outbreak, Gates said a future pandemic could be far worse. 

"You can have a virus where people feel well enough while they're infectious that they get on a plane or they go to a market," he said. 

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