Bill Gates calls for global surveillance team to spot pandemic threats

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A team of international experts ranging from epidemiologists to computer modellers should be created to quickly identify global health threats and improve co-ordination between countries, Bill Gates has said, warning that greater investment is needed to avoid another pandemic.

The Microsoft founder and philanthropist, who in 2015 first cautioned publicly that the world was not ready for the inevitable next pandemic, said his proposed Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization initiative should be managed by the World Health Organization.

As the war in Ukraine dominates the international agenda, Gates urged global leaders not to lose sight of the health crisis. He called for greater investment to prevent future pandemics. “It seems wild to me that we could fail to look at this tragedy and not, on behalf of the citizens of the world, make these investments,” Gates told the Financial Times.

More than 6.2mn worldwide are estimated to have died from Covid-19 since late January 2020, shortly before the WHO declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

He acknowledged there were questions over whether an international consensus could be reached to increase funding for WHO, which he believed was the only body that could build and manage the “top-notch” GERM team for which the running costs, he estimated, would be around $1bn a year.

“The amount of money involved is very small compared to the benefit and it will be a test: can global institutions take on new responsibilities in an excellent way, even in a time period where US-China [relations are] tough, US-Russia is extremely tough?” said Gates

Bill Gates © POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The WHO had “less than 10 full-time people” working on outbreak preparedness, said Gates, adding that “even those people are distracted with many other activities”.

“The current WHO funding is not at all serious about pandemics,” he said.

Gates, who argued that there was an urgent need for longer-lasting vaccines that blocked infection, stressed that the current pandemic still posed a threat.

“We’re still at risk of this pandemic generating a variant that would be even more transmissive and even more fatal,” he said. “It’s not likely, I don’t want to be a voice of doom and gloom, but it’s way above a 5 per cent risk that this pandemic, we haven’t even seen the worst of it.”

Gates, whose book How to Prevent the Next Pandemic is published on Tuesday, expressed his hope that the UK would not further reduce its contribution to foreign aid funding, suggesting this could lead to other nations engaging in their own retrenchment which could jeopardise key global public health programmes.

The UK’s decision last year to reduce its annual aid budget from 0.7 per cent, to 0.5 per cent, of gross national income was “a disappointment”. It meant areas such as polio and reproductive health had been cut.

“We’re down to the bare minimum, and if the UK cuts more, then others will do as well,” said Gates. “That would be tragic because . . . all that money saves lives for less than $1,000 per life saved.”

He said the UK remained a big donor to the vaccine alliance Gavi and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

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