Bill Gates says his foundation, the world’s wealthiest charity, will give its “total attention” to the Covid-19 pandemic — even at the risk that its other public health work will suffer.
In a telephone interview from his Seattle base, Mr Gates said the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has an endowment of more than $40bn, would focus its resources on a pandemic which he fears will cost the global economy “tens of trillions of dollars.”
“You’re going to have economies with greatly reduced activity levels for years,” Mr Gates said. “So-called ‘animal spirits’ are going to be hard to find, other than government largesse. We’re definitely in the tens [of trillions], which blows the mind. If you’d asked me six months ago, I wouldn’t have thought that was possible.”
Although the foundation has directly given $250m to the Covid-19 response, its actual commitment of manpower and expertise is much greater, Mr Gates said.
“We’ve taken an organisation that was focused on HIV and malaria and polio eradication, and almost entirely shifted it to work on this,” he said. “This has the foundation’s total attention. Even our non-health related work, like higher education and K-12 [schools], is completely switched around to look at how you facilitate online learning.”
Mr Gates said clinical trials of a promising new Aids drug and campaigns for measles vaccinations and polio eradication would suffer as a result of the focus on Covid-19.
“This emergency has distracted a lot of critical work in many, many areas,” he said. “Fewer people able to show up for routine immunisation or supply chains for immunisation not working well, that’s hundreds of thousands of deaths right there. If we can’t keep getting malaria treatments out effectively, that’s a huge rebound in malaria.”
The Gates Foundation is committed to global action against Covid-19 in collaboration with the world’s other leading public health bodies, which agreed collectively on Friday to work together with the private sector under the auspices of the World Health Organization to accelerate the development of diagnostics, drugs and vaccines against the virus. On May 4 they will hold a pledging conference that aims to raise $8bn for the effort.
Mr Gates defends the WHO against accusations from US president Donald Trump and others that the UN body has mismanaged the pandemic response and is too close to China. “WHO is clearly very, very important and should actually get extra support to perform their role during this epidemic,” he said.
He does not believe that Mr Trump will carry out his threat to withdraw US funding from WHO. “I think he will do deep analysis and decide that they probably should get more money, not less money,” Mr Gates said.
He is impatient too about attacks on China for its lack of openness about Covid-19 and particularly its reluctance to allow non-Chinese experts to investigate the origins of the coronavirus outbreak in the city of Wuhan. “Sure, they should be open, but what is it that people are saying they’re not being open about? Every country has a lot you can criticise,” he said.
“Most people, whenever something new comes along, they take their classic criticisms of that country and just repeat them. But here we should get concrete. I don’t see any deep insights that are missing in terms of the origin of the disease that somebody is holding something back.”
Mr Gates expects to attract “a lot of criticism” through his high-profile role in tackling the pandemic. “It is weird,” he said at the end of the interview. “This whole thing is so awful, and the notion that anybody’s getting positive visibility for it seems very paradoxical.”