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Bill Gates’s latest idea is a pandemic watch unit inspired by ancient Roman firefighters

Bill Gates speaks at SESSION 6 at TED2022: A New Era. April 10-14, 2022, Vancouver, BC,
Ryan Lash / TED
Bill Gates speaks at SESSION 6 at TED2022: A New Era. April 10-14, 2022, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

VancouverPublished Last updated

Bill Gates appeared at the TED conference last week toting a curious wooden bucket. It was a replica of the pails used by the first firefighting brigades in 6th century Rome. The prop symbolized a key pillar in the 66-year old billionaire philanthropist’s latest idea for preventing future pandemics.

Speaking to a packed auditorium at the elite ideas conference held in Vancouver, Canada, Gates proposed creating a standby pandemic prevention unit, not unlike the Romans did when they organized the first permanent fire brigade (called cohortes vigilum or colloquially, sparteoli for “little bucket fellows”) after a devastating fire engulfed their city.

Gates’s vision would establish a permanent pandemic watch unit, with representatives in key cities around the world, who would parachute to any locale to contain health outbreaks before they spread. The name of the proposed for group: “Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization” or GERM.

Gates elaborates on its structure in his new book, “How to Prevent the Next Pandemic.”

My back-of-the-napkin estimate is that GERM would need about 3,000 full-time employees. Their skills should run the gamut: epidemiology, genetics, drug and vaccine development, data systems, diplomacy, rapid response, logistics, computer modeling, and communications. GERM should be managed by the World Health Organization, the only group that can give it global credibility, and it should have a diverse workforce, with a decentralized staff working in many places in the world.

When not dealing with a live crisis, GERM could conduct pandemic preparedness drills, as firefighters do, or work with countries to strengthen their health systems, he explained.

Prevention has been a regular talking point for Gates since he first spoke about how ill-prepared the world was for a pandemic at TED in 2015. “I was one of many people who said we weren’t ready and we needed to get ready. We didn’t,” he said.

“The speech actually was watched by a lot of people, but 90% of the viewers were after it was too late,” he said at TED last week.

“When covid first struck, we were almost like Rome before they had fire buckets and firefighters…Now, with the right investments, we can have a whole new generation of tools in diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines,” Gates said, holding up handheld rapid covid testing device called LumiraDx that his foundation supports, as an example.

“The cost of this team is significant—over a billion dollars a year,” Gates acknowledged. But he reasoned that the expense of funding GERM, along with investments in research and vaccine development, is akin to buying an insurance policy against future health catastrophes. “The cost to prevent the next pandemic will be tens of millions of dollars, but let’s compare that to what we just went through.”

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