In case you missed it, Bill and Melinda Gates were pretty visible over the weekend expanding their altruistic pursuits, specifically by contributing their names and ample resources to important, underfunded causes.
Sunday night on 60 Minutes, they spoke about helping low-income, but high-achieving students, known as the Gates Millennium Scholars, reach their dreams in higher education by covering their four-year tuition bill. And two days prior, Microsoft's co-founder met with health experts in Boston and pledged millions to help speed the development of a universal flu vaccine, which he argued is badly needed.
During his presentation at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Society, Gates – who along with his wife runs a foundation focused on global health – warned that we are distinctly unprepared for the next big pandemic that will eventually come our way.
"We can’t predict when. But given the continual emergence of new pathogens, the increasing risk of a bioterror attack, and how connected our world is through air travel, there is a significant probability of a large and lethal, modern-day pandemic occurring in our lifetimes," Gates explained, adding that "the health infrastructure we have for normal times breaks down very rapidly during major infectious disease outbreaks. This is especially true in poor countries. But even in the U.S., our response to a pandemic or widespread bioterror attack would be insufficient."
In response, Gates, along with Lucy and Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, is stepping up to support additional medical research for a comprehensive vaccine that can protect against nearly all strains of flu.
"To broaden efforts even further, today we are launching a $12 million Grand Challenge in partnership with the Page family to accelerate the development of a universal flu vaccine," he told those in attendance at the event, called the Shattuck Lecture. "The goal is to encourage bold thinking by the world’s best scientists across disciplines, including those new to the field."
Citing the 1918 influenza pandemic that devastated global populations exactly a century ago, Gates said that if a similar airborne pathogen were to reappear today an estimated 33 million people around the globe would perish in six months.
It's estimated that between 50 million and 100 million people died during that global outbreak.
Gates has expressed his concern to President Trump, who last month urged him to engage the Dept. of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health. Meanwhile, he is urging the government's leading health officials to take up a multi-pronged approach.
"I’m a big fan of vaccines, but they may not be the answer when we have to respond immediately to rapidly spreading infectious disease pandemics," Gates said. "Not only do vaccines take time to develop and deploy; they also take at least a couple of weeks after the vaccination to generate protective immunity.
"So, we need to invest in other approaches like antiviral drugs and antibody therapies that can be stockpiled or rapidly manufactured to stop the spread of pandemic diseases or treat people who have been exposed."