We should prepare for the next epidemic the same way we prepare for nuclear war


Seth Berkley CEO of GAVI Alliance

Reuters/Ruben Sprich

Seth Berkley, the CEO of GAVI.

The US Navy has a fleet of submarines carrying nuclear missiles that are always in place, just in case.


That, GAVI Vaccine Alliance CEO Seth Berkley said, is what the world's response to global health threats should look like.

"The thing that's shocking is that the US has a set of nuclear submarines that we keep underwater that are always there. That's the third line of defense," he told Business Insider.

"You've got your land-based systems, your air-based systems, and then if both of those fail you've got your submarine systems. We spend tens of billions of dollars a year doing that."

Our level of preparation for clear and looming public health threats pales in comparison.


GAVI is an organization backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization that helps get vaccines to children in developing countries. The systems in place for a potential nuclear war are starkly different from the preventive measures that exist for mosquito-borne diseases like Zika - which as of Wednesday still hadn't received funding from Congress. Other outbreaks like yellow fever and chikungunya have posed a huge global health risk in the past few months.

"The likelihood of war is relatively low, and and it's unlikely that you're going to have all the other systems fail," Berkley said. "Here, we have the evolutionary certainty of these outbreaks, and we don't take them seriously."

Instead of drumming up sudden interest in public health problems only when they start to be a problem (think: the widespread panic that came after the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and the world's immediate response to Zika), Berkley thinks it would be a much better idea to always have a system in place so that we're not starting from scratch the next time a little-known disease starts to affect a lot of people.

"We need to get a certain level of preparation and work going, and we need to consistently invest in it as a global priority," he said.

Berkley isn't the only one who thinks this: In 2015, Bill Gates asked the question: "What's more important, having a standby military or a standby medical corps?" He followed up by saying that the thing that's most likely to kill 10 million people in the next 30 years is an epidemic - not a war.


So why haven't we set up a multi-layered prevention plan for potentially global epidemics? Humans are notoriously bad at figuring out what's actually a risk, Berkley said. It's why people fret about dying in a plane crash but not dying from heart disease, even though the latter is many, many times more likely. It also took us decades to realize that smoking caused cancer and that people should wear seatbelts.

"We're lousy as a species at doing risk assessment," Berkley said.