Bill Gates Reflects on COVID-19 Crisis and His 2015 Pandemic Prediction

Bill Gates - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Television

The Microsoft co-founder spoke with Ellen DeGeneres about the impact of the novel coronavirus and his $100 million donation to help find a vaccine.

Bill Gates made a Monday appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where he spoke about the global impact of the novel coronavirus and his 2015 Ted Talk prediction that a health crisis would one day destabilize the United States.

"Well, the goal of the 2015 talk and the detailed article in the New England Journal of Medicine was so that the government would do the work to be ready for the next epidemic," Gates told DeGeneres, who has been filming her talk show remotely from her home in Los Angeles. "And that would have meant that we would have had diagnostics very quickly, drugs very quickly, even a vaccine, all of those things, dramatically faster than what we're going through here."

In 2015, the Microsoft co-founder, billionaire and philanthropist told an audience: "If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes."

"We've actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic," he said at the time, echoing warnings in recent years from infectious disease doctors. "We're not ready for the next epidemic."

To help contain the illness, Gates and his wife, Melinda, in February donated $100 million to aid vaccine research and treatment efforts on behalf of their eponymous foundation.

"Over the last five years, the foundation and others did make investments in things like a coalition called CEPI that will help get the vaccine out faster than would have otherwise been the case," Gates told DeGeneres. "This is even worse than war, and yet the amount we put into it, the amount we practiced, and had the ability to make these tools, virtually nothing was done."

According to Gates, past health crises — including the deadly influenza pandemic of 1918 — should have served as lessons to government leaders about how to prevent more in the future. 

"We had epidemics like the Ebola epidemic in Africa that should have gotten us ready," he said. "Then we had Zika. But a respiratory pandemic that's very widespread, really, we haven't seen anything like this for 100 years. And I actually thought that anniversary of 1918 would galvanize people as well."

Gates predicted that "[things] won't be back to normal until we have that phenomenal vaccine or therapeutics that are over 95 percent effective." He added that "we have to assume that's going to be almost 18 months from now."

Gates went on to say that his foundation, which he said "does far more in terms of infectious disease work than any group in the world," has had to press pause on projects relating to other issues such as polio and HIV to fully focus on COVID-19 relief efforts.

"We're giving money to up the testing capacity because, in developing countries, where they can't do these quarantines, that's where, sadly, the vast majority of the deaths are likely to take place," he said of the work the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is doing outside of the U.S.

Asked how he sees the economy bouncing back once improvements are made, Gates said that it will most likely take time. "It won't go back to normal in some very rapid fashion, because not only do we have these factories shut down and all these activities have ceased, even as we start them back up, people will still be a bit leery about going out," he said. "And they will have seen their investments and their job security greatly reduced. So, the strong economy that we had will take several years before it comes back."

However, Gates added that the financial price of the coronavirus will never compare to the many lives lost. "The good thing about the economy is that eventually, it will come back," he said. "The medical price that will be paid by a lot of countries all over the world, that's a lot of deaths that will simply never be able to reverse at all."

As of Monday, more than 1.8 million cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed worldwide, with over 116,000 of those resulting in deaths. In the U.S., to date, there are more than 560,000 confirmed cases with over 22,000 deaths.

Watch Gates' full appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show below.