Five years ago, Bill Gates warned that the greatest potential problem facing the world was not a war but a pandemic. The billionaire has spent billions of dollars finding faster ways to develop vaccines and create disease traceability systems. He asked world leaders to build defenses against new viruses.
In retrospect, Gates acknowledges, “I wish I had done more to draw attention to the danger.” The Microsoft co-founder is now facing a scenario he tried to prevent.
“I feel terrible,” he acknowledged in an interview. “The intention in trying to raise awareness about it was for measures to be taken to minimize the damage,” he says.
In his role as philanthropist and co-director of one of the richest foundations dedicated to global health and education in the United States, Gates, at 64, has placed himself at the centre of a pandemic that has already killed more than 290,000 people and that has destroyed the world economy.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds researchers seeking treatment and works with pharmaceuticals and governments to produce millions of vials of a potential vaccine while testing, so they can be in the hands of regulators as soon as possible to receive the green light. The foundation has set up a factory for the production of these medicines as soon as possible.
Gates turned to managers in the pharmaceutical industry for details on vaccine production.”People may see it as a very simple part, but have never been manufactured 7.000 million vaccines,” he explains.
He has held talks about the pandemic with world leaders. In interviews and on his blog, he explained the logic behind confinement in order to stop the virus from spreading, and the slow de-escalation to return to commercial activity and reopen schools. “The COVID-19 is behaving like the pathogen it appears once every century and it had us worried,” Gates said in an article published in February by the ‘New England Journal of Medicine.’
His starring role during the pandemic has also made him the target of conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine groups.
Public health experts have criticized Gates and his foundation for taking that relevant role. The foundation is the one that decides which disease is given priority when it comes to providing funding, and that does not please everyone. “What we do is invest our money and express our opinions. But we don’t make the decisions,” he alleges.
Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has highlighted the limits of a person – as much as he is the second richest in the world – when it comes to stopping a pandemic. The virus, says Gates, is “by far the most dramatic thing that has ever happened in my life.” The pandemic has disrupted work to eradicate polio and programs to vaccinate children in underdeveloped countries, even though funding has not been cancelled.
At the moment, the foundation he directs has allocated $ 305 million to research the vaccine and treatment of COVID-19, as well as to bring medicines to Third World countries. Before the pandemic ends, “we will have spent a lot more,” says Gates.
Gates and his wife, Melinda, created their foundation in 2000 with the intention of promoting biomedical innovations against diseases. In 2014, Ebola focused its attention amid an epidemic that killed more than 11,300 people worldwide.
“We are not prepared for epidemics,” he said in an interview in ‘The Wall Street Journal’ in 2014. At the time, he had just attended a conference on Ebola and had met with a Nigerian physicist who had survived the disease.
“What will happen if another form of SARS appears?” He said in 2002 and 2003 when the respiratory syndrome epidemic broke out, caused by another coronavirus. The next thing may be “SARS II,” he said.
In March 2015, he warned during a popular TED Talk that a pandemic would be a more serious threat to the world than a nuclear conflict, given the countries’ few defenses. He called for an international prevention and response system with health personnel, rapid diagnoses, drug stocks and technology to produce vaccines in a few months.
“An epidemic is one of the few catastrophes that can turn the world back a few decades,” he wrote in his article in the ‘New England Journal of Medicine.’
Gates was part of a group of experts calling for better sanitary defenses. “Mine was not the only voice. What set it apart from the rest is that I have not spent my entire life researching communicable diseases,” he says.
The Microsoft founder explained the risks of a pandemic to candidates for the White House in 2016 and asked them to make preparations to curb it a national priority. He also tried to persuade President Donald Trump at a meeting in December 2016. The White House has declined to comment.
At a 2017 conference in Munich, a gathering where security experts meet annually, Gates said that “preparing for a global pandemic is as important as nuclear de-escalation or avoiding a climate catastrophe.” There he discussed ways to prepare vaccines faster. One of his ideas was to use cures for other diseases against these new viruses.
At the time, his foundation allocated $ 100 million to fund research for new infections and their cures. Developing a vaccine is very expensive and usually has little profitability, because the demand is very punctual. The Coalition for Innovations in Pandemic Preparedness is also funding the search for the COVID-19 remedy.
Gates has taken advantage of his ability to access world leaders. “In my encounters with senior officials in Europe or the United States, I can talk about the risks of a pandemic,” he says.
For him, philanthropists have to be catalysts. “I dedicate hundreds of millions of money from the foundation to this. But it really is a thing for governments, just as the defence budget is prepared for an eventual war,” he says.
Many world leaders agree with him, at least partially. But the lack of an immediate threat leads many countries to resist spending a lot of money on defending against a pandemic. “Hopefully the warnings we have made would have prompted coordinated action on a global scale,” he laments.
Frustrated by the lack of activity, Gates set his eyes on a project that was close to him. He wanted to know better how to avoid the transmission of respiratory viruses that can cause pandemics. “He wanted to know if it was important to close schools, at what distance it is transmitted if the masks work or not …”, he explains, noting that he did not find many answers.
His questions led him to invest 20 million of his own money in a study that started in 2018. It was designed to find better ways to detect the flu and stop its spread. Investigators began their tests in the Seattle area.
In mid-January, as China imposed the confinement of Wuhan, Gates posed a series of questions to the scientists at his foundation: which drugs are the most promising? When can we have a vaccine? What can the foundation do to speed up testing?
A month later, Gates met with epidemiologists and health experts. The probability that the virus did not leave China was less than 25%, he told his team after the meeting with experts. As the coronavirus spread to more countries, he once again asked questions of his team and pharmaceutical leaders about the ability to test, plans for a vaccine, and ways his foundation could help.
In late February, researchers in the Seattle flu study, now in its second year, found COVID-19 in a sample taken from a teenager. Genetic analysis showed that it could be related to another case in the area. That suggested there was already “considerable expansion in the community,” explains Trevor Bedford, a genetic epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
That same week, an outbreak was found at a residence in Kirkland, Washington state, just 11 miles from Gates’ home. After years of warning about a serious pandemic, he had it in the backyard.
Gates has come under fire from both right and left sympathizers for his charity work, as they accuse him of doing it to wash down his image of a ruthless capitalist. He has also been singled out as a defender of China for claiming that calling for an investigation into Beijing’s role in the virus response is “a distraction.”
Posts on Facebook and the rest of social media have spread more conspiracy theories, including that he wants to implant microchips in people to detect those who have been tested, an accusation that Facebook labelled as false. Almost all the theories end up pointing out that he wants to get money out of the crisis.
A Gates spokeswoman said he and his partner have pledged to donate the majority of his estimated $ 106 billion fortune to charity before he died. “The conspiracy theories are totally false,” he said.
A tweet he posted on April 15 defending the WHO also received much criticism. It was a response to Trump’s announcement that his Administration was suspending funds earmarked for WHO because of his response to COVID-19. The Gates Foundation is the second-largest funder of the WHO, behind only the United States.
“We need WHO, and I don’t see the point in interrupting its many ongoing investigations. I don’t see it. WHO is playing a leading role in the pandemic. They need even more resources,” the message said on Twitter.
The Gates Foundation began with the mission of reducing inequality by improving education and health worldwide. It focused on infectious diseases in part because pharmaceutical companies have little reason to pay to invest in the development of medicines, especially when compared to what they would get with cures for cancer and other chronic illnesses. In 2018, the last year for which there is data, the foundation had an endowment of 46.8 billion.
Since 2014, they have invested 235 million in preparations for a potential pandemic, to which must be added the 305 million specifically for the COVID, as stated by the foundation itself.
Government and healthcare leaders are often wary of forecasts by the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which is funded by the Gates Foundation. This institution has doubled its projections for the US and anticipates that by August 137,184 people will have died on US soil.
Gates says efforts to prevent a pandemic “fell far short of what could have been done.” In any case, he is optimistic in the short term.
“My hope is that leaders around the world, who are responsible for protecting their citizens, will have learned from this tragedy and will invest in systems to prevent future pandemics,” he says.