I know, I know. The last pandemic isn't even totally over yet. The last thing most of us want to do is think about the next one. But according to Bill Gates, we don't have that luxury. 

Speaking at the Time 100 Summit this week, the Microsoft founder turned philanthropist insisted the odds of another global pandemic arising in the next two decades is an even 50-50. And it could be much worse than Covid-19, which is already horrific. 

"Given the toll of this pandemic -- 20 million dead globally, a million in the U.S. -- it could have been way more fatal. We just got lucky that the death rate per case was like 0.2 percent," Gates said. 

A preventable disaster

Terrified yet? The prospect of a far worse pandemic is appalling, especially when the prediction is coming from one of the few guys who warned us in advance of the current one, but luckily Gates isn't all just gloom and doom. He also argues that with a thoughtful investment of resources the world can be well prepared to head off the next outbreak before it goes global. 

The subject is the topic of his latest book, with the no-nonsense title How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, but he has also outlined his basic ideas both at the Summit and in recent blog posts.

Gates is advocating for a permanent new World Health Organization team dedicated to monitoring new pathogens and disease outbreaks. He suggests the clever name GERM--Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization--for the unit. The international group of epidemiologists, data wranglers, logistics professionals, and other experts "would look for potential outbreaks. Once it spots one, GERM should have the ability to declare an outbreak and work with national governments and the World Bank to raise money for the response very quickly," Gates has written

The group would also advise on drug and vaccine development, model outbreaks, and coordinate responses. When not actively chasing down the next deadly germ, the team would run exercises to prepare for all eventually. Gates estimates it would have a permanent staff of about 3,000. 

At this point you're probably asking, wait, don't we already have something like this? Because in hindsight it certainly seems like a no-brainer. But apparently the sad answer at the current moment is no. There are ad hoc and volunteer organizations working on preventing pandemics but no permanent, professional, international team. 

Gates insists creating such a team would be well worth the investment. His organization estimates GERM would cost something like $1 billion a year to fully fund. That's not chump change, but he points out, it's also a tiny fraction of the costs, both human and material, of the current pandemic. 

"The amount of resources required under anyone's solution is actually pretty modest. This GERM team ... is about $1 billion a year, which we've lost over $14 trillion so far for this pandemic. And there would be benefits in even non-pandemic years," Gates noted at the Summit. 

He concluded with the hope that policymakers don't get so distracted by our many other serious problems that they once again miss the boat on preparing for a pandemic. I think a great many of us out there share his wish. 

The lesson for entrepreneurs 

The biggest lesson here for entrepreneurs is the same as the lesson for every other citizen of the world: Pandemics remain a huge risk, and our governments aren't doing nearly enough to prepare. We should all keep that in mind when we head to the ballot box. But for business owners there is also the added reminder that the winding down of Covid does not mean the end of the risk from rampaging germs. 

The same way governments should take the current pandemic as a prod to think through what to do in the event of another similar disruption in the future, entrepreneurs should probably reflect on what they should do to put their businesses on the surest possible footing for further upheaval. The world is going to stay crazy. The best we can hope to do is prepare as well as possible. 

Interested in more of what Gates had to say? Here's a longer clip of his remarks at the Summit.