Bioterrorists could one day kill hundreds of millions of people in an attack more deadly than nuclear war, Bill Gates will warn world leaders.
Rapid advances in genetic engineering have opened the door for small terrorism groups to tailor and easily turn biological viruses into weapons.
A resulting disease pandemic is currently one of the most deadly threats faced by the world, he believes, yet governments are complacent about the scale of the risk.
Mr Gates, whose charitable foundation is funding research into quickly spotting outbreaks and speeding up vaccine production, said the defence and security establishment “have not been following biology and I’m here to bring them a little bit of bad news”.
Mr Gates will today (Saturday) tell an audience of international leaders and senior officers that the world’s next deadly pandemic “could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist”.
He told the Telegraph: “Natural epidemics can be extremely large. Intentionally caused epidemics, bioterrorism, would be the largest of all.
“With nuclear weapons, you’d think you would probably stop after killing 100million. Smallpox won’t stop. Because the population is naïve, and there are no real preparations. That, if it got out and spread, would be a larger number.”
He said developments in genetic engineering were proceeding at a “mind-blowing rate”. Biological warfare ambitions once limited to a handful of nation states are now open to small groups with limited resources and skills.
He said: “They make it much easier for a non-state person. It doesn’t take much biology expertise nowadays to assemble a smallpox virus. Biology is making it way easier to create these things.”
The increasingly common use of gene editing technology would make it difficult to spot any potential terrorist conspiracy. Technologies which have made it easy to read DNA sequences and tinker with them to rewrite or tweak genes have many legitimate uses.
He said: “It’s not like when someone says, ‘Hey I’d like some Plutonium’ and you start saying ‘Hmmm.. I wonder why he wants Plutonium?’”
Mr Gates said the potential death toll from a disease outbreak could be higher than other threats such as climate change or nuclear war.
He said: “This is like earthquakes, you should think in order of magnitudes. If you can kill 10 people that’s a one, 100 people that’s a two… Bioterrorism is the thing that can give you not just sixes, but sevens, eights and nines.
“With nuclear war, once you have got a six, or a seven, or eight, you’d think it would probably stop. [With bioterrorism] it’s just unbounded if you are not there to stop the spread of it.”
By tailoring the genes of a virus, it would be possible to manipulate its ability to spread and its ability to harm people.
Mr Gates said one of the most potentially deadly outbreaks could involve the humble flu virus. It would be relatively easy to engineer a new flu strain combining qualities from varieties that spread like wildfire with varieties that were deadly.
The last time that happened naturally was the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic, which went on to kill more than 50 million people – or nearly three times the death toll from the First World War.
By comparison, the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa which killed just over 11,000 was “a Richter Scale three, it’s a nothing,” he said.
But despite the potential, the founder of Microsoft said that world leaders and their militaries could not see beyond the more recognised risks.
He said: “Should the world be serious about this? It is somewhat serious about normal classic warfare and nuclear warfare, but today it is not very serious about bio-defence or natural epidemics.”
He went on: “They do tend to say ‘How easy is it to get fissile material and how accurate are the plans out on the internet for dirty bombs, plutonium bombs and hydrogen bombs?’
“They have some people that do that. What I am suggesting is that the number of people that look at bio-defence is worth increasing.”
Whether naturally occurring, or deliberately started, it is almost certain that a highly lethal global pandemic will occur within our lifetimes, he believes.
But the good news for those contemplating the potential damage is that the same biotechnology can prevent epidemics spreading out of control.
Mr Gates will say in his speech that most of the things needed to protect against a naturally occurring pandemic are the same things needed to prepare for an intentional biological attack.
Nations must amass an arsenal of new weapons to fight such a disease outbreak, including vaccines, drugs and diagnostic techniques.
Being able to develop a vaccine as soon as possible against a new outbreak is particularly important and could save huge numbers of lives, scientists working at his foundation believe.
It typically takes up to a decade to develop and license a new vaccine. To halt a deadly airborne disease outbreak, that would need to be cut to as little as 90 days.
The need to stop a disease epidemic is so important that countries should prepare for it as they currently prepare for war, complete with large exercises and drills.
He will tell his audience: “Getting ready for a global pandemic is every bit as important as nuclear deterrence and avoiding a climate catastrophe.”
– Bioterrorism –
As suggested by the name, bioterrorism is the deliberate release of biological agents such as viruses, bacteria or toxins to cause illness or death.
Animals and crops are considered likely targets of bioterrorist activity, with livestock diseases deployed to damage the economy and cause public concern.
The Centre for Disease Control categorises the following as Category A agents, posing a risk to national security:
- Tularemia or “rabbit fever” – Highly infectious and life-threatening
- Anthrax – Non-contagious disease. Notably used by persons unknown in a series of mail attacks in 2001
- Smallpox – Currently only existing in laboratory cultures, but would be a deadly weapon if released once again
- Botulinum toxin – A highly toxic substance that is readily available, due to its use in “botox” cosmetic procedures
- Bubonic plague – The disease that caused the Black Death in Medieval Europe and with a long history of use as a biological warfare agent
- Viral hemorrhagic fevers – Such as Ebola
The single largest recent incident of biological terrorism was the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack in Oregon, USA. Followers of Indian mystic Osho intentionally infected restaurants with salmonella, as part of a plan to incapacitate the electorate and win local elections. 751 people were infected, but there were no fatalities.
William Henry “Bill” Gates III (born October 28, 1955) is an American business magnate, investor, author, and philanthropist. In 1975, Gates and Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft, which became the world’s largest PC software company. During his career at Microsoft, Gates held the positions of chairman, CEO and chief software architect, and was the largest individual shareholder until May 2014. Gates has authored and co-authored several books.
Since 1987, Gates has been included in the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people and was the wealthiest from 1995 to 2007, again in 2009, and has been since 2014. Between 2009 and 2014, his wealth doubled from US$40 billion to more than US$82 billion. Between 2013 and 2014, his wealth increased by US$15 billion. Gates is currently the richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of US$84.2 billion as of January 2017.
Gates is one of the best-known entrepreneurs of the personal computer revolution. He has been criticized for his business tactics, which have been considered anti-competitive, an opinion that has in some cases been upheld by numerous court rulings. Later in his career, Gates pursued a number of philanthropic endeavors, donating large amounts of money to various charitable organizations and scientific research programs through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, established in 2000.
Gates stepped down as chief executive officer of Microsoft in January 2000. He remained as chairman and created the position of chief software architect for himself. In June 2006, Gates announced that he would be transitioning from full-time work at Microsoft to part-time work, and full-time work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He gradually transferred his duties to Ray Ozzie and Craig Mundie. He stepped down as chairman of Microsoft in February 2014, taking on a new post as technology adviser to support the then newly appointed CEO Satya Nadella.
— Voice Of People (@VOP_Today) November 5, 2016
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