As a sixth wave of COVID-19 unevenly reverberated around the planet, tech billionaire and mega-philanthropist Bill Gates chose TED Talks in Vancouver Tuesday to float a $1-billion idea to prevent a repeat of such cataclysmic events in the future.
“What we’ve had these last few years is like a horrific global fire,” Gates said. “The COVID pandemic has killed millions and increased economies, and we want to stop that from happening again.”
His 2022 speech was an epilogue to the 2015 TED Talk he delivered on the same stage where, after an Ebola epidemic in West Africa, he warned that the world wasn’t ready for the next global pandemic and pleaded for authorities to prepare.
“We didn’t,” he said in front of TED’s audience, peppered heavily with fellow billionaire philanthropists. “So now I hope the need is clear.”
At a time much of the public is weary of the grinding realities of this pandemic, Gates pitched an idea for a global emergency-response approach under the acronym GERM, Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization, which he outlines in a new book, How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, released at the conference.
Gates proposes a team of 3,000 doctors, epidemiologists, policy and communication experts and diplomats to be coordinated by the World Health Organization at the cost of $1 billion a year.
The team would help national health services zero in on disease outbreaks with the potential to flare into deadly epidemics. Speed would be of the essence with exponentially expanding pandemics, Gates said.
He noted that if COVID-19 had been stopped in the first 100 days of the pandemic, 98 per cent of the lives it has taken would have been saved.
“This won’t be cheap, but it will save lives,” Gates said. He hopes rich world governments will step up to support his proposal.
Gates’ timing with that message is good, said Dr. Brian Conway, president and medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Center.
“Right now is an interesting time, where we’re dealing with COVID fatigue on the part of the general population, and a transition in much of the developed world from pandemic to endemic,” Conway said.
People are ready to leave the pandemic behind, at the same time post-mortem examinations of the event will start to reveal the unintended “harms” that COVID caused, Conway said.
He pointed to a Postmedia news story about the isolation that older Canadians suffered during the pandemic as evidence “we basically did harm to the elderly.”
“And there’s going to be data on (how) we did harm to school aged children, we did harm to the inner city, and we did harm to the economy, a lot of businesses closed that probably shouldn’t have closed,” Conway said.
Conway said health officials can’t lose sight of the need to develop pandemic readiness plans that outline the steps authorities need to take to mobilize the public in response to epidemic threats.
“So the thoughts of someone like Bill Gates are incredibly important,” as someone capable of cutting through politics, Conway said.
“Those big picture arguments are incredibly important, should have been in place,” Conway said. “The concern is (that) just right now people want to — as much as possible — not have COVID dominate their lives.
Gates’ advocacy and support for vaccine development through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has become a lightning rod for the COVID skeptics and anti-vaccine protesters, which he characterized as “kind of weird.”
Gates said he’s proud of his foundation’s work to support vaccines, which have saved millions of lives, “so it’s somewhat ironic to have somebody turn around and say, ‘No, we’re using vaccines to kill people, or to make money.’ ”
“Or when we started during the pandemic, even some strange things — like that I somehow want to track, you know, the location of individuals — because I’m so deeply desirous of knowing where everyone is,” he said.
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