Bill Gates spoke with broad optimism about the potential for technology to address some of the globe’s biggest challenges, but struck an ominous tone Friday in discussing the threat posed by the coronavirus as the outbreak outpaces the best efforts of doctors and health workers.
The impact could be “very, very dramatic,” particularly if it spreads to areas like sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, the billionaire philanthropist said, addressing a standing-room-only audience during his keynote address at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Seattle. He called it “potentially a very bad situation.”
As he was speaking, news broke that the first case of coronavirus had been confirmed on the continent, as a person in Egypt tested positive for the disease.
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“This is a huge challenge,” Gates said. “We’ve always known that the potential for either a naturally caused or intentionally caused pandemic is one of the few things that could disrupt health systems, economies and cause more than 10 million excess deaths.”
Gates pointed to advances in molecular diagnostic tools as one promising safeguard against such outbreaks.
“We’re on the cusp, in science, of being able to make good tools to do the diagnosis, provide vaccines to provide therapeutics including antivirals,” he said.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently committed $100 million to fighting coronavirus, as part of its broader efforts in global health.
“Our foundation is very engaged in terms of the relationships we have with governments and the private sector to orchestrate and provide resources and hopefully contain this epidemic,” he said.
One of the big challenges, Gates noted, is the infectious nature of coronavirus earlier in the cycle of the disease, impacting the general population. That’s in contrast with earlier challenges such as Ebola, which were more dangerous to health workers attempting to treat people who were sick.
Key questions, he said, are “will this get into Africa or not, and if so, will those health systems get overwhelmed?” Later, he added, “This disease, if it’s in Africa, is more dramatic than if it’s in China,” noting that he was “not trying to minimize what’s going on in China in any way.”
Margaret Hamburg, chair of the AAAS board of directors, cited the past outbreaks of diseases such as SARS and Ebola, and the cycle of “crisis, concern and then complacency,” that often follows them. She asked Gates what it will finally take to ensure that adequate preventative measures are in place.
Science is giving us the opportunity to improve lives around the world faster than ever before. Today I was honored to give a speech on this subject at the @aaas annual meeting. #AAASmtg https://t.co/03yWD4svD6
— Bill Gates (@BillGates) February 14, 2020
Referring to advances and price reductions in molecular diagnostic tools, Gates responded, “certainly the good news is that just the plain old horizontal advances in how we make these tools will help us.”
“We have a plan to get those machines fairly pervasive in developing countries,” he said, referring to the work of the Gates Foundation and its partners. Within a decade, the world will be better off due to greater capacity for diagnostics. The ability to create new vaccines should help, as well, Gates said.
“There’s been a huge under-investment in therapeutics, particularly antivirals,” he said, adding that he believes China could “step up” in that regard once the current crisis passes. “Hopefully,” he said, “that’s not too long from now.”
Post updated at 5:15 p.m. on Feb. 14 with additional details from Gates’ remarks.