Bill Gates has been worried about a pandemic hitting the world for decades. So much so, his foundation spent millions creating fictional scenarios for world leaders to troubleshoot in which mutating viruses infected humans and killed tens of millions before being contained.
At global conferences, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation got cabinet-level leaders to run through the script to show how unprepared they were and how little they’d thought about the issues. Who would model the epidemic’s spread? Where would the genetic sequencing happen? Which agency would organize clinical trials?
“We tried to get some awareness of how huge this vulnerability is in various global forums,” Gates said. The last one was run in partnership with the World Economic Forum on Oct. 18, 2019, livestreamed for the world to watch.https://d-4147317954827184744.ampproject.net/2101211748002/frame.html
The pandemic that emerged just two months later still came as a shock.
“This has been the most surprising year of my life,” Gates told USA TODAY on Tuesday.
On Wednesday he and his wife Melinda released their annual letter. It normally would focus on multiple projects the multibillion dollar foundation is working on in the realms of global health and education.https://d-4147317954827184744.ampproject.net/2101211748002/frame.html
This year it’s all about COVID-19.
So far, the foundation has pledged $1.75 billion for COVID-19 response, in addition to its decadelong funding of underlying vaccine technologies. Gates spoke with USA TODAY about the role the United States has played in created vaccines to fight COVID-19, the promise of mRNA vaccines and the remarkable persistence of the conspiracy theory he’s slipping microchips into the vaccine:
No, he’s not microchipping anyone
Gates is perplexed by the fantastical false claim he’s somehow used COVID-19 vaccines to deliver microchips to track unsuspecting humans.
“I have no idea where that came from,” he said.
It makes no sense technologically, he said. The idea that a microchip small enough to pass through a hypodermic syringe could somehow be used to monitor or control people is not science, it’s science fiction.
And even if it were possible, “Why would I be involved in that?” he said. “I don’t get it.”
The idea might be worth a laugh except that lives are on the line.
“If somebody is afraid of these vaccines because of this craziness, that means that they’re not going to be protecting others,” he said. “They’re going to be a potential source of transmission.”
Making the truth as compelling as some of the more outlandish theories that are circulating will take creativity and enlisting trusted community voices.
It’s a lot like the work the foundation has done in Africa for the polio vaccine, which has been dogged by false rumors that it causes sterility, he said. One effective approach there has been to get local religious leaders to vaccinate their children.
“They set an example and people start to go, ‘OK, you know, maybe this will stop my kid from getting paralyzed. I should probably do it,’” Gates said.
US deserves thanks for a fast vaccine
Gates is clear that without the U.S., a vaccine to fight SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19, would have been much longer coming.
“The United States actually gets a high mark,” he said. “When it comes to innovation, the U.S. is still the majority of all the innovation power. Whether you take biology or IT or climate change, the world really does count on the United States.”
The U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, housed within the Department of Health and Human Services, put up more money toward research and development for COVID-19 vaccines than all other groups combined, he said.
The second-largest funder, he noted, was the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which was backed by the Gates Foundation.
“But it was a lot less than BARDA put out. BARDA allowed companies to go full speed ahead,” he said.
The promise of mRNA vaccines
The Gates Foundation gave some of the first funding for mRNA vaccines a decade ago, in support of German-Turkish researchers Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Türeci. They created a company in Germany, BioNTech, with the plan of working on mRNA vaccines for cancer. BioNTech went on to create the first U.S. authorized COVID-19 vaccine in conjunction with Pfizer.
That was exciting, but Gates wanted to expand the focus beyond money-making cancer treatments to vaccines that could protect the world’s poor. The foundation gave BioNTech grants so research into infectious disease could be done in parallel with its cancer work.
“It’s a very amazing relationship,” Gates said.
He believes mRNA vaccines hold great promise beyond COVID-19, but it will take time for them to get there. They require precise lipid nanoparticles to enter cells so they can replicate and trigger the immune response. They also require cold temperatures that are expensive to support.
That, Gates expects, will change quickly. It shouldn’t take longer than five years for the technology to mature, he said.
“We just need to mess around,” he said. Cheap, quickly-developed mRNA vaccines are coming that hold the potential to “fill in missing vaccines” to fight diseases like HIV, malaria and tuberculosis that have long stymied researchers.
“A lot of our bets for the Gates Foundation and others who care about global health will be mRNA-focused. We’ll use these for every disease that we don’t have vaccines for,” he said.
Setting traps for the next pandemic
Disease is inevitable, pandemics are not.
Gates and others envision an international network of researchers and epidemiologists who constantly scan the world for emerging diseases so they can be discovered and stopped before they get out of hand. It would only take around 3,000 of these lookouts, he thinks, and they could spend the bulk of their time working on infectious diseases such as polio and malaria.
“As soon as there’s a hint of an epidemic, they’d be fully trained, have their skills and go focus on whatever the thing is that was potentially developing,” Gates said.
This surveillance would allow testing, genetic sequencing and, most importantly, containment of a new disease while it’s was confined to a small area.
The cost might be billions of dollars but would be cheap at the price, he said.
“For tens of billions a year we’ll be buying an insurance policy that will save trillions of dollars when something comes along,” he said.
“We don’t know when that is, but it’s going to come.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bill Gates annual letter: pandemic planning, vaccines and microchips