The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is significantly boosting its commitment to the fight against COVID-19 and renewing calls for the U.S. and other governments to chip in to ensure vaccines and treatments reach the world’s poorest people.
The giant Seattle philanthropy announced late Wednesday that it will spend an additional $250 million — its single largest contribution so far — to accelerate development and delivery of diagnostics, drugs and vaccines.
“Thanks to the ingenuity of the global scientific community, we are achieving the exciting medical breakthroughs needed to end the pandemic,” billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said in a statement. “We have new drugs and more potential vaccines than we could have expected at the start of the year. But these innovations will only save lives if they get out into the world.”
The latest donation brings the foundation’s total pandemic-related grants to $1 billion. The foundation has also earmarked $750 million for forgivable loans and other financing mechanisms through an investment fund that reinvests returns in charitable causes.
The new funding comes at a pivotal time, foundation CEO Mark Suzman said in a media briefing. The first vaccine is already rolling out in the U.K., while U.S. regulators appear poised to soon approve emergency use of two vaccines. A second wave of vaccines is also in advanced trials, including some that could be cheaper and easier to administer in the developing world.
“That’s great news,” Suzman said. “But it’s actually really, really, really complicated to make sure we get those vaccines produced and distributed in an equitable way.”
The foundation’s top pandemic priority has been making sure vaccines reach low-income countries. But wealthy nations have already locked up much of the initial supply through purchase agreements.
Bill Gates and the foundation have played a major role in bringing together international governments, pharmaceutical companies and the World Health Organization in a collaboration called COVAX. The goal is to pool resources and use donations from wealthy countries to subsidize the cost of vaccines for poorer nations.
More than 90 high- and middle-income nations have joined COVAX, and several have committed a total of $2.1 billion to purchase vaccines. But at least $5 billion is needed to vaccinate just 20% of people in low-income countries, Suzman said.
The Trump administration refused to join the collaboration. Suzman said he hopes the incoming Biden administration will reverse that position.
Bill and Melinda Gates have already made pitches to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the foundation expects to “be in dialogue” with President-elect Biden’s appointees as well, Suzman said.
Supporting international vaccination is not only the right thing to do morally, it’s also in the United States’ economic interests, he added.
Modeling by researchers at Northeastern University commissioned by the Gates Foundation found that if rich nations monopolize the first 3 billion doses of vaccine, the virus will spread unchecked in the developing world for months until more vaccine becomes available. The global death toll could be twice as high compared to a scenario where vaccines are distributed equitably based on population.
Another Gates-funded analysis found that the economic and geopolitical costs of failing to control the pandemic everywhere in the world could be very high, in terms of lost markets and social disruption. But if drugs and vaccines are equitably distributed, the economic benefits to 10 wealthy nations, including the U.S., the U.K. and Japan, could total $466 billion over the next five years — far more than the cost of chipping in now for collaborative programs like COVAX, the study by the Eurasia Group concluded.
“It’s a very cheap rate of return,” Suzman said.