Speaking at a security conference in Munich, the richest man in the world warned that the impact of deadly viruses such as smallpox, should they spread, could be worse than that of a nuclear attack.
Gates, who delivered his chilling warning ahead of a speech at the Royal United Services Institute in London (RUSI), said the world should not underestimate the potential threat of lethal respiratory viruses, as they are becoming easier to re-create and spread.
“We ignore the link between health security and international security at our peril,” he said.
“The next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus... or a super contagious and deadly strain of the flu,” he added.
Gates, a philanthropist who has spent the last 20 years funding a global health campaign, said that epidemiologists claim there is a “reasonable probability” of an epidemic outbreak occurring in the next 10 to 15 years.
Security specialists have raised concerns over the growing possibility of bioterrorist attacks, as advances in molecular biology have made biological weapons more accessible, particularly in the past five years.
Although British and US intelligence services have warned that Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) has been trying to make biological weapons in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, they have downplayed the threat, as they don’t think the terrorist group has people with the skills necessary to create them and doubt such arms could be produced in a war-zone.
Nonetheless, Gates said the threat of a pandemic must be taken seriously.
“It’s hard to get your mind around a catastrophe of that scale, but it happened not that long ago.
“In 1918, a particularly virulent and deadly strain of flu killed between 50 million and 100 million people.
“You might be wondering how real these doomsday scenarios really are.
“The fact that a deadly global pandemic has not occurred in recent history shouldn’t be mistaken for evidence that a deadly pandemic will not occur in the future.
“And even if the next pandemic isn’t on the scale of the 1918 flu, we would be wise to consider the social and economic turmoil that might ensue if something like ebola made its way into urban centers,” he said.
Gates then recommended that the world put as much effort into preparing for an outbreak of viruses as it does into preventing nuclear attacks or climate change.
“Getting ready for a global pandemic is every bit as important as nuclear deterrence and avoiding a climate catastrophe.
“Innovation, cooperation and careful planning can dramatically mitigate the risks presented by each of these threats,” he said.
Gates then outlined possible preparations that governments could make.
“This includes germ games and other preparedness exercises, so we can better understand how diseases will spread, how people will respond in a panic, and how to deal with things like overloaded highways and communications systems,” he said.
His warning follows the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s release of an Ipsos Mori poll that shows 71 percent of Britons aged 16 to 75 are less concerned about war than the spread of deadly diseases.