The next Covid-19 could be caused by terrorists

Whether natural or committed by 'bioterrorists', the world needs to learn from Covid-19 to make sure it is prepared for the next pandemic

In 2015, Bill Gates, the billionaire philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft, released a video that foresaw much of today's struggle against Covid-19. "If anything kills more than 10 million people in the next few decades, it's likely to be a highly infectious virus, not warfare", Mr Gates said to a TED talk audience. Just four years later, the pandemic began. So far, it has killed 5 million people.

He was not the only person to hold this view before this pandemic began. But those who shared his foresight were not given the attention they deserved. Going forward, it is clear that they should be listened to more.

This week, Mr Gates issued another warning: terrorism could be the cause of the next pandemic, and the world is not ready.

Mr Gates now calls for the creation of a new $1 billion WHO Pandemic Task Force to run what he called "germ games": exercises to hone a response to a new pandemic, whether it is caused naturally or artificially by "bioterrorists", much like how militaries prepare for fighting by conducting so-called war games. Mr Gates gave an example scenario of a terrorist bringing smallpox to 10 airports.

The level of investment Mr Gates wants is justifiable, and a figurative drop in the ocean compared to the damage a pandemic can cause. Covid-19 is estimated to have shrunk the world economy by 4.4 per cent in 2020. A new study has shown that a total of 28m years of life expectancy were taken last year by the virus in 31 countries. In terms of the virus's reach, only 12 countries have reported no Covid-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic – most of them small, isolated island nations in the middle of large oceans.

Even the most vicious "traditional" terrorist tactics could not come close to inflicting such damage and having such wide-reaching impact.

On a wider security level, even if the next pandemic is not caused directly by a bioweapon, more lockdowns, time spent online and economic hardship would create the conditions that push people into terrorist ideologies. A September study by the Global Network on Extremism and Technology, for example, found that today's pandemic led to a particularly large spike in people searching and posting far-right material.

A central part of Mr Gates's call was that the bioterrorist threat can be mitigated much the same way a natural pandemic would be: by minimising the risk of global illnesses such as the flu and common cold, making vaccine technology more versatile and accessible, in addition to learning from the countries that have performed the best during the past year and a half. Most of all, the world needs to foster global readiness to stop the emergence and spread of future pandemics.

As Covid-19 demonstrates, it is all too easy for humans to fail to prepare for threats, even predicted, potentially catastrophic ones. Six years ago, Mr Gates's warning video was released. Six years from now, we do not want this week's intervention to mark yet another occasion the world refused to listen.

Published: November 5th 2021, 3:00 AM