If there is one name that personifies the global race to find effective vaccines, it is not White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci or a Big Pharma CEO. It is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Mr. Gates and his wife, Melinda, have been obsessed with vaccines for more than two decades and, through their US$50-billion Gates Foundation, have thrown US$16-billion at vaccine programs. Since the pandemic erupted a year ago, he has devoted his formidable influence and financial firepower to creating COVID-19 vaccines and finding ways to deliver them in bulk to the developing world.
He is everywhere. Pick up a newspaper and you might find he has written an op-ed on the pandemic (or climate change or agricultural research, his other two obsessions). His photo graces the homepages of some of the research institutions that he funds. In 2000, he set up Gavi, the vaccine alliance that has absorbed US$4-billion of Gates Foundation money. Gavi, in turn, is one of the driving forces behind COVAX, the World Health Organization-led group trying to ensure that low-income countries are not shut out of vaccines.
His foundation is one of the top funders of the WHO. Then there is CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which was co-founded by the foundation in 2017 to pay for vaccine research and is a Gavi partner. Michael Barbaro of The New York Times has said that Mr. Gates “is becoming his own one-man global health organization.”
It’s a fair description. When Mr. Gates, the world’s premier techno-optimist, talks, Big Pharma, health ministers, universities, UN organizations and health charities stand in rapt attention. Ignoring or disdaining him doesn’t pay.
At best, I can only give two cheers to Mr. Gates’s effort to end the pandemic that has killed almost 2.6 million people and crippled economies around the world. He has done more than any other billionaire to try to find a way out of the crisis, and I admire his largely apolitical science-based approach. Think of all the billionaires whose response has been a strategic retreat to their yachts.
But we know that vaccines alone will not end the pandemic, which is accelerating in some parts of the world as more contagious, and potentially more deadly, variants take over.
We know that COVAX is ambitious and well-intentioned but will come up short in the developing world, partly because it is underfunded. Its goal is to deliver two billion vaccines by the end of 2021. About 600 million doses will be reserved for Africa, but that represents only 20 per cent of the African population. In the developing world, the pandemic could rage on for years, with vaccine deliveries lagging infections and possibly offering little or no protection against nasty new variants.
COVAX is a vital pandemic-fighting tool. I just wish Mr. Gates took a more holistic approach to his pandemic campaign, one that focuses less on intellectual property (IP) rights. Big Tech alone is not going to kill off the virus. Just as with other global issues, there is no one solution to the pandemic; there are collective solutions, some of which are of the relatively inexpensive, low-tech variety.
Take agriculture. Mr. Gates is a big advocate of the scientific research devoted to improving crop yields – all the better to meet the meal demands of the the extra two billion people who are to be stuffed onto our planet by 2030 or so. But do we really need to invest heavily in genetically modified crops? Maybe we don’t need more food at all. A United Nations report released this week said that almost one billion tonnes of food is wasted a year, more than half at the household level, and that the amounts per household are roughly similar in poor and rich countries. You don’t hear Mr. Gates talk much about finding ways to reduce this waste (which would also reduce carbon output).
Ditto for pandemic-fighting techniques. For Mr. Gates, vaccines and protecting IP are the priority even though dozens of countries are lobbying for compulsory licensing, which would see the World Trade Organization suspend the IP rights on vaccines, allowing manufacturers anywhere to make these products.
I wish he would talk more about the benefits of masks, building ventilation, sanitation and access to clean water – each a primary tool needed to protect people from the virus – and quick, tight lockdowns of hot spots. Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand didn’t use vaccines to largely snuff out virus transmission, because they weren’t available. They used common sense.
Even today, masks that are cheap, comfortable and highly effective – better than the N95 standard – do not exist. Imagine if Mr. Gates had devoted even a fraction of the many billions he has spent on vaccines to mask development. Another area begging for a reinvention is air-flow systems for offices and schools to prevent cluster infections. Barring proper ventilation, it will be hard to persuade employees to give up their home offices.
The point being, the world listens to Mr. Gates. If he were to highlight the benefits of the decidedly low-tech approaches to fighting the pandemic, we might all be in a better place as he and Big Pharma try to work their magic. The most famous do-gooder on the planet is certainly a vaccine pioneer. But vaccines alone no longer seem capable of fixing this tragic mess. Mr. Gates’s vaccine machine can only do so much.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.