Bill Gates pledges $12M to search for universal flu vaccine

Bill Gates on Friday announced he would give $12 million to the jump-start search for a universal flu vaccine, warning that the world was at severe risk for "deadly global pandemic."

In a speech to the Massachusetts Medical Society in Boston, the billionaire Microsoft founder and philanthropist said the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would team up with Google co-founder Larry Page and his wife, Lucy, to fund a "grand challenge" encouraging "bold thinking by the world's best scientists" to find a vaccine that would protect seasonal and pandemic strains of the virus.

A hundred years ago, an outbreak of the Spanish flu was thought to have killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide. Gates says an outbreak on the same scale today could take the lives of an estimated 33 million people within six months, citing research by the Institute for Disease Modeling.

"This could be an important first step if the White House and Congress use the opportunity to articulate and embrace a leadership role for the U.S.," Gates said in his speech Friday.

Because vaccines can take some time to come to market and take effect, Gates added that it was important "to invest in other approaches, like antiviral drugs and antibody therapies that can be stockpiled or rapidly manufactured to stop the spread of pandemic diseases or treat people who have been exposed."

Nor is flu the only concern.

"The world needs to prepare for pandemics the way the military prepares for war," Gates said.

Speaking to The Washington Post this week ahead of the announcement,Gates said he had encouraged President Donald Trump to take proactive steps to prepare for pandemic threats and, with Trump's encouragement, had spoken several times with former national security adviser H.R. McMaster on the issue.

"Given the continual emergence of new pathogens, the increasing risk of a bioterror attack, and how connected our world is through air travel, there is a significant probability of a large and lethal, modern-day pandemic occurring in our lifetimes," Gates said in his speech.

While research and technological advances have improved diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases, it won't matter if governments aren't adequately prepared to respond to an outbreak, Gates said. He told The Post he hoped to meet with McMaster's successor, John Bolton, and that he felt the National Security Council could "show leadership on this issue and decide how to coordinate the various groups."

The Gates Foundation spent $1.2 billion on global health initiatives in 2016, according to its website. A global coalition to create vaccines for emerging infectious disease called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparednesslaunched in January 2017 with a $500 million initial investment from the Gates Foundation, the governments of Japan, Norway and Germany, and Great Britain's Wellcome Trust.

"We're looking for something totally transformational that would replace the need for an annual vaccine," Keith Klugman, a global health program director at the Gates Foundation,told The Telegraph. "We're looking for a vaccine that would not only protect against pandemic flu but would also protect against every other type of virus."

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report