Bill Gates Sees a Threat That Could Kill 30 Million People. Some Funders Are Paying Attention

 A scene from the movie contagion

A scene from the movie contagion

Biosecurity has become an increasingly critical aspect of the global health security policymaking agenda—as well it should be. Advances in biotechnology present the increased risk of terrorists weaponizing dangerous pathogens that have the potential to kill millions of people within a short period of time. The possibility of natural pandemics is very real, too. 

Bill Gates recently gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference on the matter, saying that the world at large is ignoring “the link between health security and international security,” and we do so “at our peril.” Gates warned the audience that epidemiologists have indicated that a quick-moving airborne pathogen could lead to the deaths of over 30 million people in less than a year. He went on to say that whether “by the work of nature or the hands of a terrorist,” it is a “reasonable probability that the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10 to 15 years.” Gates said that governments and international agencies were totally unprepared for such an event. 

Biosecurity isn’t a new concern. Nearly 20 years ago, in his novel The Cobra Event, Richard Preston described an attempted terrorist attack on the United States by a perpetrator who genetically engineers a virus fusing the common cold with smallpox. Yet, however alarming such risks are, biosecurity has long been a back-burner issue for philanthropy—attracting nowhere near as much attention, for example, as nuclear security.

Rockefeller used to be among the few major foundations that funded work on disease surveillance, but it phased out that grantmaking a few years ago. Among living donors, Jeff Skoll was one of the few top philanthropists who focused resources on the risks posed by pandemics and the Skoll Global Threats Fund has been working in this space for a while, now. Among other things, it's created an online community at Endingpandemics.org. (Skoll's production company, Participant Media, also made the 2011 movie Contagion, about a pandemic that kills millions worldwide.)

As we've been reporting, though, biosecurity has gained more traction among funders since the Ebola outbreak in 2014. 

Earlier this year, the Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust, and the World Economic Forum, along with the governments of India and Norway, founded the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI. In just a short time, CEPI founders were able to raise around $490 million of their $1 billion goal. The coalition is initially focusing its work on the MERS-CoV, Lassa, and Nippah viruses. As the outfit grows, the hope is to add more diseases to its target list.

Related: This May Be the Greatest Threat to Humanity. What Can Philanthropy Do About It?

In another important development, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna have emerged as top new funders in the biosecurity space. As we've reported, they are backing work in this area by the Open Philanthropy Project (OPP), which is a joint effort between their foundation, Good Ventures, and GiveWell. OPP's Global Catastrophic Risks portfolio has two main priorities, one of them being biosecurity and pandemic preparedness. According to OPP, “natural pandemics represent one of the biggest current risks to global welfare and stability,” and it’s giving big to mitigate that risk.

Related: Catastrophic Global Risks: A Silicon Valley Funder Thinks the Unthinkable

OPP recently awarded a three-year, $16 million grant to the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health supporting its work in health security and for preparing and preventing global biological risks. The funds will be directed toward projects to deepen the understanding of biological risks as well as improving the response to such risks. The grant will also fund increasing biosecurity policy awareness in the United States and abroad.

The $16 million to Hopkins marks OPP's largest biosecurity and pandemic preparedness grant to date. In fact, it's among the biggest grants that OPP has ever made and, as far as we can see, one of the larger grants in the biosecurity space in recent years. 

OPP offered some insight about the grant, explaining that it was addressing a “two-part gap.” First, work in the biosecurity field, especially as it pertains to global catastrophic risk, is sparse. Second, there is a limited amount of independent policy research and advocacy in the biosecurity field in general.  

OPP has been developing its biosecurity work for just a couple of years, now. Over that short period of time, the outfit has moved a decent amount of money. For example, it gave a $2.7 million grant to the UPMC Center for Health Security for the development and training of early career professionals working in a wide range of biosecurity and pandemic preparedness fields. And it made a $1.3 million give to the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, which aims to improve U.S. biodefense policy.

OPP's effort to boost and build out the field of biosecurity work reminds us a lot of the Hewlett Foundation's similar effort in regard to cybersecurity, another threat with a paucity of independent research and policy analysis. Hewlett has committed tens of millions of dollars to filling that gap, and it looks like OPP has embarked on an effort nearly comparable in scale. Certainly, there is no shortage of resources to draw from. Forbes now pegs Dustin Moskovitz's net worth at $10.8 billion. 

Looking ahead, one question is whether new funders will come to the field of biosecurity. Given his alarmed comments in Munich, we could certainly see Bill Gates and his foundation stepping up funding here in a big way. Paul Allen is another philanthropist who's dialed in to these issues; Allen did more than any other private funder to respond to the Ebola outbreak in 2014.