Since the 1918 flu, modern medicine has made huge strides. It has eradicated smallpox, nearly wiped out several other childhood diseases and found cures for some cancers. And just this past year, there have been glimpses that gene therapy may help with some genetic disorders, long thought to be incurable.
But what about humanity's ability to stop a flu pandemic? Um ... well, that has changed little in the past century.
"If a virus like the 1918 flu struck again, we wouldn't be able to create a vaccine fast enough to make a big difference," says Sarah Gilbert, a virologist at Oxford University, who has been working on a universal flu vaccine for years.
"It takes six months to manufacture the first doses of a vaccine for a new strain — and that's just the first doses. It will take longer to get the first million or 10 million doses," Gilbert says.
By then the virus will have spread across six continents. "It will pretty much be across the world within a month," Gilbert exclaims. Even with antiviral drugs available and modern hygiene, computer models suggest the return of a 1918-flu strain could kill more than 100 million people worldwide. (And if you're wondering what made that strain so deadly, so are scientists.)
The bottom line is: "We're Not Ready for a Flu Pandemic," The New York Times declared in an opinion piece earlier this year.
Now Bill Gates wants to help get us ready.
"Today we are launching a million Grand Challenge, in partnership with the Page family, to accelerate the development of a universal flu vaccine," Gates announced Friday at a scientific meeting in Boston. (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are funders of this blog).
Yes, it's true we already have flu vaccines. But the problem is that we have too many of them.
Each year, scientists have to guess which version of the flu will be most problematic, and then — starting from scratch — they try to create a vaccine that matches that strain perfectly. This vaccine sometimes works. And when it does, it works only for one flu season. That is why it's called a "seasonal vaccine."
Right now, the whole process takes about six months, which is way too long when you're talking about an ubercontagious, airborne virus that can spread around the globe in months..