Bill Gates has spent his post-tech life focusing on health crises, and in an essay at the New England Journal of Medicine he offers some sobering thoughts about the coronavirus. He points out that health experts have been warning for some time that a pandemic rivaling the 1918 flu "was a matter not of if but of when." Now comes the coronavirus. "In the past week, Covid-19 has started behaving a lot like the once-in-a-century pathogen we’ve been worried about," he writes. "I hope it’s not that bad, but we should assume it will be until we know otherwise." For one thing, despite those who say otherwise, the coronavirus is indeed deadlier than the flu, writes Gates. Preliminary estimates suggest a fatality risk of 1%, far higher than the 0.1% risk with the seasonal flu.
For another, the coronavirus seems to spread "quite efficiently," he writes. The average person who is infected passes it on to two or three others, and those with mild or even no symptoms appear to be capable of passing it along as well. Gates' main point isn't to spread alarm but to urge governments to take action now on a range of fronts. For example, developed nations should help their poorer counterparts prepare, which he sees as a crucial investment in terms of containment. "In addition, we need to build a system that can develop safe, effective vaccines and antivirals, get them approved, and deliver billions of doses within a few months after the discovery of a fast-moving pathogen," writes Gates. The logistics of that are daunting, and Gates runs through the details and offers solutions. Read his full column. (Read more coronavirus stories.)