Johannes Simon / Stringer / Getty
But one of the biggest threats out there is one of the oldest:
infectious disease, which can emerge naturally or be
human-made, as in a case of bioterrorism.
As Bill and Melinda Gates wrote in their recently
released “Goalkeepers” report, disease — both infectious and
chronic — is the biggest public health threat the world faces in
the next decade. And although Gates said on a press call that
“you can be pretty hopeful there’ll be big progress” on chronic
disease, we are still unprepared to deal with the infectious
Gates has repeatedly stated that he sees a pandemic
as the greatest immediate threat to humanity on the planet.
“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,”
wrote in an op-ed for Business Insider earlier this year.
“And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will
experience such an outbreak in the next 10-15 years.”
Gates is right about the gravity of that threat, according to
experts in the field.
George Poste is an ex officio member of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on
Biodefense, a group created to assess the state of biodefense
in the US,.
“We are coming up on the centenary of the 1918 influenza
pandemic,” he told Business Insider. “We’ve been fortunately
spared anything on that scale for the past 100 years, but it is
inevitable that a pandemic strain of equal virulence will
The 1918 pandemic killed
approximately 50 million people around the globe, making it
one of the deadliest events in human history.
David Rakestraw, a program manager overseeing chemical,
biological and explosives security at Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory, and Tom Slezak, the laboratory’s associate program
leader for bioinformatics, also agree with Gates.
“Both natural and intentional biological threats pose significant
threats and merit our nation’s attention to mitigate their
impact,” they told Business Insider in an email.
It’s possible that a major outbreak could be intentionally
created as the result of a biological weapon, but Poste thinks a
serious bioterrorism attack is unlikely due to the complexity of
pulling something like that off.
It’s very likely, however, that a highly dangerous disease
would naturally emerge — and the consequences of
that pandemic would be just as severe.
Regardless of how a disease starts to spread, preparedness
efforts for pandemics are the same, according to Poste.
And the recent outbreaks of Zika and Ebola have
highlighted the need for more heightened disease surveillance
capabilities. We’re still getting a handle on the
health effects of Zika — and it seems like the mosquito-borne
disease may be even more severe than we thought.
Experts have long advocated for better ways to recognize emerging
threats before they become epidemics or pandemics. Poste
also said we need to improve rapid diagnostic tests and get
better at developing new therapeutics and vaccines — something
Gates highlighted as a weakness in the “Goalkeepers” report as
Until that happens, that threat remains far more real than many
of us realize.