The Covid-19 pandemic can be the last major pandemic humanity ever has to face--if we take action now to prepare for the next pathogen threat. That message comes from Bill Gates, who has laid out his recommendations for stopping the next deadly virus in his new book How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, to be published on May 3.
"We don't have to do this again," Gates writes in a blog post announcing the book. That may sound like an ambitious claim, but he has been researching this stuff for a long time. In fact, in 2015, he warned of the dangers an airborne virus could pose. Even at the time, he said humanity had the means to prevent a deadly pandemic from spreading--if we would prepare for it in the same way that we currently prepare for war, with standing armies, ongoing training, and simulations--"germ games"--that resemble the war games frequently held today.
What are his current recommendations for containing the next pandemic before it has a chance to spread? We'll have to wait for the book to get his detailed recommendations, but here are the three elements of his plan that he describes in a brief video accompanying the blog post:
1. Improve health systems everywhere
We need better health systems, particularly in developing countries, Gates says. It's easy to see how this would help. At the time that the Omicron variant first appeared in South Africa, less than a quarter of its population was fully vaccinated, and very few people had received booster shots.
Some experts believe this low vaccination rate gave the virus much more opportunity to mutate into new forms. And while Omicron appears to be milder than earlier forms of Covid, it could have gone the other way. Better health care systems in developing nations would also mean more widespread testing, and less risk of people infecting others if they have the virus but don't know it.
2. Build a global pathogen surveillance system
Early detection is the key to stopping the next deadly virus from spreading and becoming a pandemic, Gates explains. When the Ebola virus first emerged, there were no epidemiologists on tap to travel to the affected sites and study the pathogen. Case reports were delayed, inaccurate, and on paper, Gates said at the time.
Things are better now, but more improvement is needed. If we build worldwide pathogen surveillance capacity, he says, "no matter which country it shows up in, we can apply resources and understand what's going on very quickly."
3. Continue to innovate in detection, treatment, and prevention
We need continuing innovation in three key areas: diagnostics (i.e. testing), therapeutics, and vaccines, Gates says. Innovation could mean that vaccines, tests, and treatments are developed--and widely distributed--much faster than happened this time. "That will make it possible," he says, "to make disastrous pandemics a thing of the past."
It may sound like an ambitious goal, but we're already partway there, Gates adds. "The progress we've made over the past two years--including the huge leaps forward we've made with vaccines and the knowledge we've gained about respiratory illnesses--has already set us on a path to success," he writes in his blog post.
Unlike in 2015, when Gates first proposed some of these measures, the world now knows how much damage a pandemic can cause in terms of lives lost, economic turmoil, and the disruption of whole societies. "Momentum is on our side," Gates concludes. "If we make the right choices and investments, we can make Covid-19 the last pandemic."
My father had me late in life, so here's something I've thought a lot about lately: He and his sisters lived through the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic as children. Their descendants have now lived through Covid-19. I don't know about you, but I don't want our children or grandchildren experiencing two years like the ones we've just had.
There's a growing audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or idea. Often they text me back and we wind up in a conversation. (Interested in joining? You can learn more here.) I've heard from many of them how this pandemic has severely disrupted their lives, just as it has mine, and most likely yours as well. If Gates is right and it is truly possible to make Covid-19 the last pandemic humanity has to face, I say we do whatever it takes.