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Bill Gates Warns of Bioterror Doomsday

Just in case you weren't already anxious enough.

by Michael Byrne
Feb 19 2017, 11:00pm

Wikimedia Commons

That any of us manage to sleep at night given the proximity of Donald Trump, the United States' philosopher king, to said country's so-called nuclear football and the launch codes to use it is a statement on either the psyche's ability to adapt to ever-mounting anxiety or its ability to hide under rocks. 

Maybe substituting in another fear will help out with that, in which case Bill Gates has us covered. At last week's Munich Security Conference he warned that a genetically engineered virus could kill more people than nuclear weapons while being far easier and cheaper to make. Gates' conference co-panelists, including the executive director of the WHO, generally agreed.

"The next epidemic has a good chance of originating on a computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus or contagious and highly deadly strain of flu," Gates said. He noted that, according to epidemiological models, a respiratory-spread pathogen could kill 30 million people in less than a year.

Beyond global health, generally, this is one of Gates' pet issues. Following the ebola outbreak of 2015, he wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that world governments must take said outbreak as a call to action. We simply got lucky that time around, he argued, and a more transmissible pathogen could have easily overwhelmed existing resources for responding to it. Gates lamented that the world does not currently fund a central organization responsible for coordinating responses to a global epidemic. The US, meanwhile, hasn't conducted a large-scale epidemic simulation since 2001's Dark Winter exercise

In remarks made to the Telegraph ahead of the Munich conference, Gates offered: "Natural epidemics can be extremely large. Intentionally caused epidemics, bioterrorism, would be the largest of all."

"With nuclear weapons, you'd think you would probably stop after killing 100 million," he said. "Smallpox won't stop. Because the population is naïve, and there are no real preparations. That, if it got out and spread, would be a larger number."

Gates imagines "germ games" epidemic response simulations, better outbreak monitoring, and quick-response vaccine development networks. For now, we remain wide open to attack, whether it comes via some terrorist biotech lab or just good old nature.