Bill Gates' new book says COVID-19 could be "the last pandemic". Is he right?

He has a plan.
Grant Currin
Bill Gates displays a copy of his forthcoming book. Gates Notes

The COVID-19 pandemic has been awful. But could it be our last?

Bill Gates says yes — and he promises to explain how in a new book slated to hit shelves on May 3.

In a blog post published earlier today, the world’s fourth-richest person says the book, How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, is an opportunity for him to share what he’s learned “both about this pandemic and [about] how we stop the next one.”

He writes in the blog post, “I believe that COVID-19 can be the last pandemic.” It’s a bold claim given the fact that pandemics have occurred frequently throughout human history, but it’s an idea plenty of other people have hinted at. For example, a researcher said in a July 2020 paper in Science that preventing pandemics for the next ten years would only cost about 2 percent of what they estimated the COVID-19 pandemic would end up costing.

The new book is also in line with Gates’ well-established ambitions to save the world. His last book, for example, is called How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.

Gates has been talking about pandemics for a long time

Gates was one of many people who predicted something like the COVID-19 pandemic well before it happened, saying in a 2015 TED talk, “if anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades it's most likely to be a highly infectious virus.”

Of course, he was far from the only person who made such predictions. In 2005, infectious disease researcher Michael Osterholm wrote that “[t]ime is running out to prepare for the next pandemic.” A few years later, a Czech-Canadian scientist, Vaclav Smil, wrote “[t]he likelihood of another influenza pandemic during the next 50 years is virtually 100%.”

It’s no accident that the CEO-turned-philanthropist takes inspiration from experts. He tweeted in 2017 that he “wait[s] for new Smil book the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie." He says the new book will be based on his work “with experts from inside and out of the Gates Foundation who are championing a more equitable response and have been fighting infectious diseases for decades.”

So, what’s his plan?

Gates’ post is light on details, but it includes a book trailer that outlines his plan to prevent another pandemic similar to COVID-19. All three action items come down to investment. First, Gates calls for the continual improvement of health systems, including in developing countries.

It's an area where Gates already has plenty of experience. His foundation — the largest philanthropic foundation in the world — spends more money on global health initiatives than most countries. And while it spends a lot of that money in poor countries, a 2009 study in The Lancet analyzed more than 1,000 grants and concluded that Gates’ priorities didn’t align with the actual disease-stricken developing countries.

Gates’ second prescription for avoiding future pandemics is to build a global pathogen surveillance system to monitor and snuff out emerging pathogens before they get out of hand. It’s a well-supported idea that many organizations, including the World Health Organization, are working on. Finally, Gates calls for more funding to develop and manufacture diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines to “get us far better tools far, far quicker” the next time a pathogen is poised to cause another pandemic.

While critics have charged the Gates Foundation with using the tremendous resources at its disposal to stifle debate among scientists and circumvent norma (and democratic) policymaking processes, there's no denying that Gates has the influence to focus leaders' attention on whatever issues he chooses. 

If that means preventing another pandemic, maybe it's not the worst thing he could do. 

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