Bioterror Attack Could Kill Millions, Warns Bill Gates

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland on January 19, 2017. Gates has warned that a bioterror attack could kill millions and added that an attack using a contagious virus could kill more people than a nuclear weapon. Reuters/Ruben Sprich

A biological attack by terrorists that could kill up to 30 million people is increasingly likely due to the ease with which pathogens can be created and spread, Bill Gates has warned.

The Microsoft founder told The Telegraph that an attack using a contagious virus such as smallpox could kill more people than a nuclear weapon.

"Bioterrorism is a much larger risk than a pandemic," he said, before giving a speech Wednesday at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

"All these advances in biology have made it far easier for a terrorist to recreate smallpox, which is a highly fatal pathogen, where there is essentially no immunity remaining at this point.

"When you are thinking about things that could cause in excess of 10 million deaths, even something tragic like a nuclear weapons incident wouldn't get to that level. So the greatest risk is from a natural epidemic or an intentionally caused infection bioterrorism events.

"Whether the next epidemic is unleashed by a quirk of nature or the hand of terrorist, scientists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. So the world does need to think about this."

Gates' charitable foundation provides funding for researchers to identify quickly outbreaks of disease.

In November, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a letter to President Barack Obama, warning of the emergence of new forms of bioterrorism.

"While the ongoing growth of biotechnology is a great boon for society, it also holds serious potential for destructive use by both states and technically-competent individuals with access to modern laboratory facilities," the PCAST members wrote.

They warned of the growing availability of gene editing technologies such as CRISPR. The technique has been hailed as one of the key scientific breakthroughs of recent years, and allows scientists to cut and replace DNA sequences.

But PCAT experts said the technique could be used to create viruses that "can cut, modify, repress, or activate a host gene so as to disrupt an important cellular function," for example, bypassing immunity.

Dr Filippa Lentzos, a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King's College London, said natural mutations of pathogens and those created by sophisticated techniques by scientists posed a much greater threat than those terrorists might create.

"At a stretch, terrorists might be able to create a viable pathogen, but that does not mean they have created a sophisticated biological weapon, and certainly not one that could kill 30 million people. We are not talking about existential threats," she tells Newsweek.

"Gates does the global health security community a disservice by drawing public and policy attention to amateurs rather than national militaries or state-sponsored groups. It is these groups which might potentially have the capability, now or in the near-future, to develop dangerous biological weapons."

"Our focus should be on the deliberate misuse of science, not by terrorists, but by a more sophisticated adversary."

Scientists at the UK's top-secret military research unit at Porton Down have been researching the use of the deadly ebola virus as a potential terrorist weapon, according to confidential documents released in 2015.

Gates said that in a globalised society in which intercontinental travel is common, a pandemic could prove even more deadly than the 1919 influenza virus, which killed between 50 and 100 million people.

"We will have epidemics in the next 20 years far worse than the ebola epidemic, or the Zika epidemic and there is some chance it would be a form of flu," Gates said.

"Something that is human-to-human respiratory that is like a measles or a flu or smallpox, that you need just one person on the bus or plane or the airport and you get huge things. A health crisis somewhere is a health crisis everywhere.

"So the scariest thing is something like the 1919 flu which really spreads everywhere and because people are moving around more it's easier for it to spread than back in 1919. If 1919 came back we have no immunity to that strain," he said.