Health and Wellness

Bill Gates: 'If every country does what Australia did,' the world could prevent the next pandemic

American businessman Bill Gates gestures during the annual Munich Security Conference, in Munich, Germany February 18, 2022.
Andreas Gebert | Reuters

For months, Bill Gates has warned of a new pandemic looming on the horizon. And according to the Microsoft co-founder, one country has already laid out a blueprint for successfully mitigating it. 

"If every country does what Australia did, then you wouldn't be calling [the next outbreak] a pandemic," Gates, a health philanthropist who has dedicated billions of dollars to vaccine research, said at the annual Munich Security Conference earlier this month.

Keeping a new outbreak from becoming a pandemic would almost certainly prevent many of the global consequences caused by Covid-19. But, Gates noted, it'll likely require much stricter policies in a future outbreak's early days than how most of the world enacted against Covid.

And countries will need to maintain those policies for a sustained period of time, even potentially against public pressure.

Gates cited Australia's Covid response as the gold standard to follow. The country reopened its international borders this week for the first time since March 2020. Over the course of the pandemic, returning citizens and approved international travelers have been required to quarantine in hotels guarded by police and military members. Australia's states even periodically locked down their respective borders.

Thousands of Australians protested those lockdowns, but the measures seem to have worked: Since the beginning of the pandemic, only 20 per 100,000 Australians have died from Covid, according to a New York Times analysis of John Hopkins University data. That's a significantly lower figure than the 283 per 100,000 Americans who have died from Covid, according to the same analysis.

Vaccine rates in Australia are also relatively high: 81% of the country's population is fully vaccinated against Covid, according to John Hopkins University data. For comparison, less than 65% of the U.S. is currently fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Australia did struggle to contain Covid's omicron variant. According to John Hopkins University data, 155 people died during omicron's Australian peak on January 28. But omicron has similarly swept through the rest of the world, largely unimpeded — and it appears that Australia's death rate is already stabilizing, with a 7-day average of 38 daily Covid-related deaths, as of Feb. 23.

There's reason to believe Australia's blueprint may have been less successful elsewhere: Its population of nearly 26 million is relatively small, and it's an island without any land borders. But Gates still called it a "true outlier."

"They orchestrated diagnostics, they executed quarantine policies, and they have a death rate in a different league than other rich countries," Gates said. "And everybody had the capability to do that."

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Australia's states have periodically locked down their respective borders throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

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