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Bill Gates at TED2011.

We Need To Prepare For The Next Pandemic… Now

We had warnings about an imminent pandemic in 2015, and somehow the globe was entirely unprepared for the outbreak of Covid in January 2020. Bill Gates, billionaire creator of the innovative Microsoft empire and now passionate philanthropist and head of the Gates Foundation, made this TED talk as a plea to world powers to drive both funding and research:

Has this prelude prepared us?

Unfortunately this, and the article below, didn’t make an impact at the time. We share it now as an effort to remind people that SARS-COV-2 is not the end of the pandemic risk to us. Human encroachment on wild spaces raise the risk of zoonotic diseases dramatically, and when combined with factors like over-population, poor access to basic healthcare, and a growing education divide, leaves us over-exposed and under-prepared.

A better response to the next pandemic
– written by Bill Gates, 18 January 2010

The H1N1 flu wasn’t nearly as bad as predicted, but not because of the effectiveness of the steps taken to contain it. This flu strain got a lot of attention in 2009 with many headlines making it sound dangerous. Early in the epidemic we thought that a very high percentage of infected people were getting sick, and it was quite scary.

But the real story isn’t how bad H1N1 was. The real story is that we are lucky it wasn’t worse because we were almost completely unprepared for it.

When an epidemic breaks out, there are four steps to try to contain it. The first is to gather data about the disease—where it is and how it is spreading. Second is to limit the movement of people from place to place—with quarantine a last option. Once a disease is widespread this is very hard to do. Third is to have drugs of some type that reduce how much someone infects others and that reduces the severity of the sickness. Fourth is to make a vaccine that is effective against the disease and give it to anyone who is at risk.

We did a reasonable job of gathering data, partly due to the capacity that had been set up to track avian flu.
But for all the other steps, we didn’t manage to do anything that would have stopped a serious epidemic.

In other words, the modest death toll from this flu epidemic is entirely because we were lucky.
Hopefully this outbreak will serve as a wakeup call to get us to invest in better capabilities, because more epidemics will come in the decades ahead and there is no guarantee we will be lucky next time.

The 1918 flu pandemic killed more than 50 million people. Nothing other than bioterrorism could kill that many people again, and most of the things we need to do to reduce the impact of an epidemic will also reduce the impact of bioterrorism.

The ability to make a vaccine quickly and manufacture it in huge quantities is a critical part of a response to an epidemic. You need to get production going in less than a month instead of more than five months, which is what it took in this case.
You also need to be able to make vaccine at a rate ten times faster than what was achieved.
Most flu vaccines today are made by injecting parts of the virus into chicken eggs, which is a laborious process. Given the approved approaches, the vaccine industry did a great job getting the vaccine out as quickly as it did. (Ironically, now that the disease is proving to be relatively mild, a lot of the vaccines they hurried to make will not be bought.)

This is one place where innovation can make a big difference.

There are new manufacturing approaches that reduce the lead time and increase the production rate, but government rules don’t allow the vaccine companies to use them yet because of safety concerns. Although governments are right to be conservative about vaccine safety, they have to find a way to help the vaccine industry incorporate these new approaches and expand its capacity in the next few years before the next epidemic comes along.

This 2017 edition of Time was prophetic.

How do we prevent infections, create solutions, and end pandemics?

It is apparent that several things need to take place in order for us to safeguard ourselves from future pandemics:

  • Masking up must become a habit, especially for ill and compromised people – PPE should be a RIGHT not a luxury
  • There are spaces in Africa which we depend upon to keep our economy running which MUST be protected and researched for optimum understanding and management – public transport is the main one
  • STEM education must be proactively funded and prioritised to create solutions by Africa, for Africa – as a follow-on, better vaccine mechanisms and protocols will be realised
  • Service delivery such as healthcare systems, access to data, and running water in communities need to be addressed urgently

How corporates can engage for change

African Potential Foundation is constantly identifying and connecting both partners and initiatives. We believe there is no shortage of socially responsible corporates or benefactors, as well as no absence of innovation or entrepreneurial solutions, but rather no effective means of connecting and facilitating these relationships.

We are that mediator, bringing a collective of skills, experience and qualifications to our networks to drive these ideologies and help Africa to realise her potential.

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