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The future of international security will be fought on the biological front. Rapid advances in genetic engineering have opened the door for small terrorist groups to tailor and easily turn biological viruses into weapons – bioterrorism. A resulting disease pandemic is currently one of the most deadly threats faced by the world, yet governments are complacent about the scale of the risk, claimed Bill Gates, in an address to the Munich Security Conference, a global forum for discussing security problems.

Gates warned about the dangers of a bioterrorist attack that could wipe out 30 million people in less than a year and how we’re not prepared for it. “We ignore the link between health security and international security at our peril,” reported

Gates, whose charitable foundation is funding research into quickly spotting outbreaks and speeding up vaccine production, said the defence and security establishment “have not been following biology”.

He said developments in genetic engineering were proceeding at a “mind-blowing rate”. Biological warfare ambitions once limited to a handful of nation states are now open to small groups with limited resources and skills.

He said the potential death toll from a disease outbreak could be higher than other threats such as climate change or nuclear war.

“With nuclear weapons, you’d think you would probably stop after killing 10 million. Smallpox virus won’t stop. Because the population is naïve, and there are no real preparations. That, if it got out and spread, would be a larger number.”

The increasingly common use of gene editing technology would make it difficult to spot any potential terrorist conspiracy, according to

Speaking ahead of the address to the Munich Security Conference, Gates said one of the most potentially deadly outbreaks could involve the humble flu virus. It would be relatively easy to engineer a new flu strain combining qualities from varieties that spread like wildfire with varieties that were deadly.

Gates argued that the key to preparing for such a situation is building an arsenal of new weapons — vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics — and cutting down the time it takes to prepare them. Vaccines can be especially important in containing epidemics. But today, it typically takes up to 10 years to develop and license a new vaccine. To significantly curb deaths from a fast-moving airborne pathogen, we would have to get that down considerably — to 90 days or less. […] The really big breakthrough potential is in emerging technology platforms that leverage recent advances in genomics to dramatically reduce the time needed to develop vaccines.