Ten years ago, Bill Gates sounded the alarm on the threat of a global health crisis following the H1N1 flu outbreak.
In his January 2010 GatesNotes blog, he wrote: “Hopefully this outbreak will serve as a wakeup call to get us to invest in better capabilities, because more epidemics will come in the decades ahead and there is no guarantee we will be lucky next time.”
The entrepreneur, thought leader and global influencer has been at the forefront of relief efforts. Earlier this month, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $150 million grant to develop therapies and vaccines to treat and fight Covid-19. The foundation pledged $5 million in March to support public health agencies and front-line response organizations in the Seattle area. And it announced another $100 million in February toward Covid-19 detection and treatment efforts.
In an email exchange, Gates shared his thoughts on the pandemic and research efforts with the Business Journal.
Where do you think we (the United States) are right now in the span of this global virus?
There are early signs in some areas of the United States that the shutdown efforts are making a difference and slowing the spread of Covid-19. If we take the shutdown seriously and put it in place consistently across the country, we can expect to slowly start loosening some of the restrictions within 4-8 weeks. We will still need some measures in place when we slowly open up, like effective, rapid testing and contact tracing, to keep the virus from spreading and keep everyone safe and healthy. But until we have a successful vaccine and high vaccination rates—or a highly effective treatment—our lives won’t feel “normal.” (I published a paper today that goes into more detail about this on my personal blog.)
Do you think we are doing enough to combat the disease?
The most important thing we can do as individuals is to stay at home — even if we feel healthy. The entire country has to bear the burden of physical distancing, even in communities where the virus isn’t widespread yet. If you have the resources, donating or volunteering in some way is also incredibly important to help communities stay strong.
As a nation, we need a consistent approach to shutting down and a data-based approach to opening up so we don’t experience a resurgence that our health care systems can’t handle. In addition, the federal government needs to step up on testing, which means providing far more tests and also making sure that tests go to the people who need them most, such as essential workers. We need a federal plan for securing and distributing medical equipment and PPE so states aren’t competing against each other and bidding prices up. And we need a data-based approach to developing treatments and a vaccine, so these efforts are guided by science and not rumor or panic buying.
And while the impact in our country and the developed world will be significant, it could be even more devastating for low- and middle-income countries. That’s one piece of the work that we’re funding through the foundation and something that will require global collaboration.
What more can business do?
Businesses are in the challenging position of trying to protect employees while staying afloat. The single biggest way to prevent the virus from spreading is to keep everyone at home. If your business depends on personal interactions, this is a devastating time. We need to make sure there is adequate government support for businesses that are struggling, and for all of the people impacted by job loss, hunger, and financial challenges.
If your business is able to donate, there are many local efforts that are doing great work to care for our communities.
What lessons have you learned from this pandemic?
I hope we don’t deal with a pandemic again in my lifetime, but we have to prepare for it. The world needs to invest in an epidemic response system that can save lives, time, and resources by preventing outbreaks from becoming pandemics. We need to run “germ games” (high level discussions, thinking ahead to plan for future pandemic possibilities) so we know what’s working well and what needs to be fixed. One of the lessons I hope we take for the future is the importance of investing in scientific R&D on an ongoing basis, not just when a crisis hits and we have to race the clock.
Is our economy forever scarred by this pandemic, at least in our lifetimes or through the next generation?
I believe this pandemic — and our response to it — will be the biggest defining moment of our lifetimes. The setback could last a couple of years, but our approach to the recovery can help us rebuild a strong economy. It will take a combination of efforts from the public sector, the private sector, and philanthropy to drive a recovery that leaves everyone with a bright future.
What far-reaching message do you have for out-of-school young people right now?
My kids and their classmates are all experiencing this. The uncertainty is really hard — wondering if you’ll fall behind, if you’ll see your friends and teachers soon, and when you’ll get to go back to school. I believe this generation is going to take this situation and transform the world for the better. And I would encourage everyone to keep learning however you can, whether that’s through remote school, reading books (public library systems have great digital collections), or finding new courses to take online.
What do you see in the near future for vaccines, testing, drugs and cures?
The global collaboration is unprecedented, and I believe we’re on track to discover and scale the production of vaccines, better tests, and therapeutics that are needed to bring this pandemic under control. It’s amazing to see the scientific and medical communities around the world coming together to speed promising vaccines to trial.
If we do everything right, we could have a vaccine ready in as little as nine months, though it could also be closer to two years. Either way, we’ll need to manufacture literally billions of doses to protect everyone around the world. So we need to be investing in manufacturing facilities for different vaccine candidates now, even though some of them won’t be used.
How do you think our lives will change after this pandemic?
I think that a few years from now, we’ll look back and say, “That was awful. There are a lot of heroes who did unbelievable things, and we won’t forget these lessons for next time.” The way people around the world are responding with collaboration and kindness is something I hope continues into the future. We face a lot of challenging global issues in addition to this one — climate change, for example — and we’ll make more progress for the world if we work together.
The world as a whole — with great science and our desire to help each other — can prevent this from happening again.