Standing before world leaders and senior security officials, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates issued a chilling warning about bioterrorism Saturday at the Munich Security Conference. Gates urged world leaders and security officials not to overlook the threat of bioterrorism, cautioning that tens of millions of people could be killed by a genetically-engineered biological weapon.
"We ignore the link between health security and international security at our peril," Gates said Saturday in a speech at the Munich Security Conference. "The next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus... or a super contagious and deadly strain of the flu."
Gates warned that in zeroing in on the rise of nuclear and chemical weapons, world leaders were overlooking the danger of biological warfare. "Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year," Gates said. "And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10-15 years."
The American billionaire philanthropist cautioned against assuming such catastrophic threats couldn't happen in today's modern era, citing a "particularly virulent and deadly strain of flu" that killed between 50 million and 100 million people in 1918 as proof of the deadly havoc global pandemics can wreak. "Even if the next pandemic isn't on the scale of the 1918 flu, we would be wise to consider the social and economic turmoil that might ensue if something like ebola made its way into urban centers," Gates cautioned.
Gates, who is the richest man in the world, according to Forbes, has dedicated considerable time and money over the last 20 years to funding a global health campaign. He urged policymakers at the Munich Security Conference to prepare for potential pandemics in ways similar to how countries prepare for war. "Getting ready for a global pandemic is every bit as important as nuclear deterrence and avoiding a climate catastrophe," Gates said. "This includes germ games and other preparedness exercises so we can better understand how diseases will spread, how people will respond in a panic and how to deal with things like overloaded highways and communications systems."
The billionaire also urged international leaders to commit to building "an arsenal of new weapons" (think vaccines, drugs, and diagnostic technology) able to fight and deter naturally occurring pandemics and bioterrorism attacks.
"When the next pandemic strikes, it could be another catastrophe in the annals of the human race," Gates said. "Or it could be something else altogether. An extraordinary triumph of human will. A moment when we prove yet again that, together, we are capable of taking on the world's biggest challenges to create a safer, healthier, more stable world."
The Munich Security Conference has been held annually since 1963, bringing security policymakers from roughly 70 countries together to discuss current and future security challenges.