Wrapping up 2018
What I learned at work this year
By Bill Gates
The next epidemic
In 1918, the Spanish flu killed 50 million people worldwide. It still ranks as one of the deadliest natural disasters ever.
I had hoped that hitting the 100th anniversary of this epidemic would spark a lot of discussion about whether we’re ready for the next global epidemic. Unfortunately, it didn’t, and we still are not ready.
People rightly worry about dangers like terrorism and climate change (and, more remotely, an asteroid hitting the Earth). But if anything is going to kill tens of millions of people in a short time, it will probably be a global epidemic. And the disease would most likely be a form of the flu, because the flu virus spreads easily through the air. Today a flu as contagious and lethal as the 1918 one would kill nearly 33 million people in just six months.
I have been studying this for several years. To be prepared, we need a plan for national governments to work together. We need to think through how to handle quarantines, make sure supply chains will reach affected areas, decide how to involve the military, and so on. There was not much progress on these questions in 2018.
There has been progress toward a vaccine that would protect you from every strain of the flu.
The good news is that there has been progress toward a vaccine that would protect you from every strain of the flu. This year I visited the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Maryland and got an update from some of the people leading this work.
The challenges of making a universal flu vaccine are fascinating. All strains of the virus have certain structures in common. If you’ve never been exposed to the flu, it’s possible to make a vaccine that teaches your immune system to look for those structures and attack them. But once you’ve had the flu, your body obsesses over the strain that got you sick. That makes it really hard to get your immune system to look for the common structures.
So it is clear how we could make a universal vaccine that would protect anyone (such as the very young) who has never been exposed to the flu before. But for anyone who has already had the virus, it is a lot harder. The problem is a long way from being solved, but new research money is coming in and more scientists are working on it.
To make the most of these scientific efforts (some of which our foundation is funding), the world needs to develop a global system for monitoring and responding to epidemics. That is a political matter that requires international cooperation among government leaders. This issue deserves a lot more focus.
Gene editing made the news in November when a Chinese scientist announced that he had altered the genes of two baby girls when they were embryos. What is unprecedented about his work is that he edited their germline cells, meaning the changes will be passed down to their children. (The other, less controversial type of gene editing involves somatic cells, which aren’t inherited by future generations.)
I agree with those who say this scientist went too far. But something good can come from his work if it encourages more people to learn and talk about gene editing. This might be the most important public debate we haven’t been having widely enough.
The ethical questions are enormous. Gene editing is generating a ton of optimism for treating and curing diseases, including some that our foundation works on (though we fund work on altering crops and insects, not humans). But the technology could make inequity worse, especially if it is available only for wealthy people.
I am surprised that these issues haven’t generated more attention from the general public. Today, artificial intelligence is the subject of vigorous debate. Gene editing deserves at least as much of the spotlight as AI.
I encourage you to read up on it whenever you have a chance. Keep an eye out for articles in your news feed. If you are willing to read a whole book, The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee is very well done. This story is one to follow, because big breakthroughs—some good, some worrisome—are coming.