Bill Gates onstage Ted Talk April 3 2015
Coronavirus 2020

Five Years Ago Today, Bill Gates Predicted COVID-19 in a Ted Talk

By Robin Postell

Friday, April 3, 2020 9:32 p.m.

Much has been said about Bill Gates predicting the current coronavirus pandemic through the years. Today, coincidentally, marks the fifth year anniversary of his famous TED Talk, “The next outbreak? We’re not ready,” which does just that.

Below is the video in its entirety, and outtakes of the transcript below.

“The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready,” Ted Talk by Bill Gates, April 3, 2015

While the world struggles with the first global pandemic of this size since the Spanish Influenza of 1918, and politicians squabble over every nut and bolt of it, Bill Gates’ prescient speech will live on as one of those almighty harbingers we didn’t heed.

Not Missiles, But Microbes

Gates recalled how he worried about nuclear disasters as a kid, adding that today’s greatest risk would more than likely be a “highly infectious virus,” not war.

“Not missiles,” he said. “But microbes.”

He pointed out that while we invested a “huge amount” in nuclear deterrents, we’ve actually “invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We’re not ready for the next epidemic.”

He referenced our struggles dealing with Ebola, which he followed carefully using the case analysis tools used to track polio eradication. Gates said that the problem hadn’t been that there wasn’t a system that worked well enough, but that we “didn’t have a system at all.”

The Transcript

We didn’t have a group of epidemiologists ready to go, who would have gone, seen what the disease was, seen how far it had spread. The case reports came in on paper. It was very delayed before they were put online and they were extremely inaccurate. We didn’t have a medical team ready to go. We didn’t have a way of preparing people. Now, Médecins Sans Frontières did a great job orchestrating volunteers. But even so, we were far slower than we should have been getting the thousands of workers into these countries. And a large epidemic would require us to have hundreds of thousands of workers. There was no one there to look at treatment approaches. No one to look at the diagnostics. No one to figure out what tools should be used. As an example, we could have taken the blood of survivors, processed it, and put that plasma back in people to protect them. But that was never tried. 02:46

Bill Gates TED Talk, April 3, 2015, 02:46 from transcript

Global Failure

Gates elaborated that this was a global failure, citing the World Health Organization’s (WHO) who is funded to monitor such epidemics but not to do the specific things he mentioned above.

Gates quipped about how different things are “in the movies,” with a “group of handsome epidemiologists ready to go, they move in, they save the day, but that’s just pure Hollywood.”

Gates also pointed out that in 2015, Ebola had killed 10,000 people worldwide, mostly in three West African countries. The reasons why it didn’t spread faster than it did?

In light of today’s coronavirus pandemic spreading throughout the entire world, his comments are revelatory.

  • Healthcare workers found those infected and prevented more infections
  • Ebola didn’t spread through the air and by the time victims were contagious, most people were so sick they were bedridden
  • It didn’t get into many urban areas, which was “just luck”

Gates went on to say that we could be unlucky with a virus “where people feel well enough while they’re infectious that they get on a plane or they go to a market.”

Sound familiar? Our current issues with asymptomatic “shedders” have made it far deadlier than Ebola.

Gates also said that the source of such a virus could be a “natural epidemic,” like Ebola, or “it could be bioterrorism.”

A Thousand Times Worse

As he put it, “there are things that would literally make things a thousand times worse.”

Like now?

Citing the Spanish Flu from 1918 as being a virus spread through the air, he explained what would happen:

It would spread throughout the world very, very quickly. And you can see over 30 million people died from that epidemic. So this is a serious problem. We should be concerned.

Bill Gates, April 3, 2015 TED Talk

Gates’ Ideas to Wage Successful War Went Unheeded

Gates was generous to point out that we had the potential to build a great system ready for such a virus, using tech and science, cell phones to get info circulating, satellite maps for tracking, advances in biology that could “dramatically change the turnaround time to look at a pathogen and be able to make drugs and vaccines” to fit it.

So, he conceded, we had the tools, but they needed to be put into an “overall global health system” to optimize preparedness.

Gates noted these key pieces necessary to wage a successful war against a looming pandemic:

  • Strong healthcare systems in poor countries
  • Medical reserve corps of trained people “ready to go” with expertise
  • Pair these with military’s logistics to move fast and secure areas
  • Do simulations, germ games – not war games – to “see where the holes are”
  • Advanced R&D in areas of vaccines and diagnostics

In summation, Gates said:

In fact, if there’s one positive thing that can come out of the Ebola epidemic, it’s that it can serve as an early warning, a wake-up call, to get ready. If we start now, we can be ready for the next epidemic.

Thank you.

Bill Gates, TED Talk, April 3, 2015 08:19

Since we didn’t heed that message five years ago, will we heed the lessons learned from what we are dealing with today?

Check back next year.

PHOTO: Screenshot Bill Gates, TED Talk, YouTube

Writer and photographer since age 7, I took it pro when I turned 21, freelancing for newspapers and magazines internationally. Now, I'm shifting gears looking for new adventures, both personally and professionally - the two have, frequently, been synonymous. A writer must adapt to the tsunami of technology and information in this brave new world. I'm game. R

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