Imagine that there is a small fire in your kitchen. Your fire alarm sounds, alerting everyone nearby to the hazard. Someone called 911. You're trying to put out the fire yourself — maybe you even have a fire extinguisher under the sink. If that doesn't work, you know how to evacuate safely. When you get out, the fire truck has stopped. Firefighters use the fire hydrant in front of your house to put out the fire before your neighbor's house is at risk of catching fire.
We need to prepare to fight epidemics just as we prepare to fight fires. If allowed to burn out of control, a fire threatens not only one home, but an entire community. The same is true for infectious diseases, except on a much larger scale. As we know all too well from Covid, an outbreak in one city can quickly spread across the country and then around the world.
When the World Health Organization first described Covid-19 as a pandemic more than three years ago, it marked the culmination of a collective failure to prepare for a pandemic despite numerous warnings. And I'm afraid we're making the same mistake again. The world hasn't done as much to prepare for the next pandemic as I would have liked. But it's not too late to stop history from repeating itself. The world needs well-funded systems ready to spring into action at a moment's notice when danger arises. We need firefighters for a pandemic.
I am optimistic about the network WHO and partners are building called the Global Health Emergency Corps. This network of the world's top health emergency leaders will work together to prepare for the next pandemic. Just as firefighters run drills to train to respond to fires, the Emergency Corps plans to run drills to train for outbreaks. The exercise will ensure that everyone — governments, healthcare providers, emergency health workers — knows what to do when a potential outbreak occurs.
One of the corps' most important tasks is to take swift action to stop the spread of the pathogen. Speed of action requires countries to have large-scale testing capabilities that identify potential threats early. Environmental controls such as sewage testing are key, as many pathogens appear in human waste. If the waste sample shows positive results, a rapid response team will be deployed to the affected area to find people who may be infected, implement a response plan, and initiate necessary community education on what to look for and how to stay protected.
As Covid-19 has shown, pandemics are a multi-trillion-dollar problem, and mitigating this challenge should not be up to volunteers. We need a corps of professionals from every country and region, and the world needs to find ways to compensate them for the time they spend preparing for and responding to transnational threats. They need to be able to deploy a team of professionals on standby to help control outbreaks where they start.
To be successful, the Emergency Corps must build on existing expert networks led by people such as heads of national public health agencies and their leaders for epidemic response. It is difficult for any single country to stop the spread of disease on its own — many of the most meaningful actions require coordination from the highest levels of government. The world needs to prepare for multi-alarm fires — the kind of fire response that requires different units and departments. This kind of blaze was rare, but when it did, there was no time to waste. Local responders need to know that they can count on a steady stream of trained firefighters who will work together seamlessly. They can't arrive on the scene only to find out that their hoses don't fit the nearest fire hydrant or they have a completely different approach than other units. The Emergency Corps will ensure the country and health systems are coordinated before an emergency, so that everything runs smoothly during times of crisis.
This is where practice makes perfect. By running drills and simulations, the corps will uncover areas where countries and leaders are not ready and help us fix them now. It is important to train for many different types of pathogens as well. Human respiratory diseases are of great concern, as they can go global very quickly. (Just look at how quickly Covid spreads.) But they're not the only threat. What if the next potential pandemic pathogen spreads via surface droplets? Or if it is sexually transmitted like HIV? What if it is the result of bioterrorism? Every scenario calls for a different response, and Emergency Corps can help the world get ready for all of them.
We can't be caught off guard again. The world must take action now to ensure that Covid-19 becomes the final pandemic, and one of the biggest steps we can take is to support the world's premier health expert — WHO — and invest in the Global Health Emergency Corps to survive. to its full potential.
This requires two things: First, public health leaders from all countries need to participate. The next pandemic could emerge anywhere, so the Emergency Corps must have expertise from every corner of the globe, including from national disease and research agencies such as the CDC and NIH in the United States. Second, we need rich countries to step up and provide the funds to make it happen.
I believe WHO remains our greatest tool to help countries stop disease outbreaks, and the Global Health Emergency Corps will represent major progress toward a pandemic-free future. The question is do we have the foresight to invest in that future now before it's too late.
Bill Gates, is the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the founder of Breakthrough Energy. He founded Microsoft in 1975 with his childhood friend Paul Allen. He is the author of “How to Prevent the Next Pandemic.”