Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, who has devoted much of his philanthropy to improving global public health, gave a speech the other day at the Munich Security Conference that should have caught everyone’s attention. Gates insisted that world leaders think differently about public health and national security. They should listen.

In 2001, bioterrorism was suddenly a very real security problem. After the anthrax attacks that year, the United States spent billions of dollars to develop and stockpile medical countermeasures and build warning systems. But in the years that followed, the villain that appeared to cause death and illness was not a bioterrorist, but Mother Nature, in a series of naturally occurring outbreaks: severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS; swine flu; and Ebola, among others.

Each could not be stopped by existing therapeutics or vaccines, raising the question: How can nations and societies defend against such fast-moving waves of peril? It is simply impossible — and too expensive — to develop countermeasures in advance of every possible threat. Moreover, effective therapeutics, vaccines and diagnostics require long lead times, while a pandemic demands a rapid response.

Gates insists that the pandemic threat be taken as urgently and seriously as major national security issues.

There is a dawning realization about this in governments, but Gates is correct that much more can be done before another disaster strikes. He noted that vaccines, so important in stopping an epidemic, typically take up to 10 years to develop, but recent advances in genomics offer the prospect of vaccines that could be created on the fly.