The billionaire philanthropist said that while the Omicron and Delta variants of coronavirus were some of the most transmissive viruses ever seen, the world could have been hit by a more virulent pathogen causing more deaths and severe illnesses. To prepare for future pandemics and bolster the ongoing fight against Covid, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged on Tuesday $150m (£110m) to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI).
“As the world responds to the challenge of a rapidly evolving virus, the need to deliver new, lifesaving tools has never been more urgent,” Mr Gates said in a statement.
“Our work over the past 20 years has taught us that early investment in research and development can save lives and prevent worst-case scenarios.”
The UK’s Wellcome Trust also pledged $150m to the CEPI, a global partnership that co-leads the Covax programme to deliver vaccines across the developing world. The vaccines from AstraZeneca, Moderna and Novavax were all funded by the CEPI.
The CEPI is trying to raise $3.5bn to reduce the time taken to produce vaccines to within 100 days to help the rollout of vaccines in low- and middle- income countries, which has been far slower than richer countries.
“Those vaccines made a huge difference, saving lots of lives and getting out very quickly,” Mr Gates told the AFP news agency. “But the picture is mixed…we didn’t get the quantity to the developing countries as quickly as we wanted.”
New data from Northeastern University in the US shows that, had the availability of vaccines in lower-income countries like Kenya been equivalent to wealthier nations such as the UK or the US, 70 percent of Covid deaths to date would have been averted.
Mr Gates said the task fell on philanthropists and wealthy governments both to address vaccine inequity and pledge money to prepare for the next pandemic.
“It was at-risk money that caused the trials to take place. So there was a huge global benefit. We’re all a lot smarter now. And we need more capacity for the next time,” he said.
“When we talk about spending billions to save . . . trillions of economic damage and tens of billions of lives, it’s a pretty good insurance policy,” Mr Gates said, quoted in the Financial Times.
The Microsoft founder, whose Foundation works to rid the world of diseases such as Polio, Malaria and Ebola, noted that investing in health innovation to tackle future outbreaks such as vaccines and treatments could also help towards tackling other existing global health problems, from HIV to tuberculosis and malaria.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said it was “critical” governments learned from the mistakes of the Covid pandemic and earlier outbreaks such as Ebola and pledged funds before diseases strike.
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“The overriding lesson from this pandemic is the need for effective organisations and systems to be in place and ready before a crisis, as well as acting rapidly based on well-established science when such crises inevitably occur,” Sir Jeremy said in a statement.
He added: “It is in the world’s collective interest to avoid repeating mistakes and to help future generations prevent epidemics.”
He described how the CEPI was formed five years ago after the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic.
“We were then and we are now living in what I think is an era of more frequent and more complex epidemics and pandemics,” he said.
CEPI chief executive Richard Hatchett said the rapid spread of the Omicron variant over the past couple of months “exemplifies the ways in which we must be ready, both in terms of speed and the scale of our response, to respond to future threats.”
Mr Gates was an earlier predictor of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a TED Talk five years ago, the 64-year-old philanthropist warned that the next “global catastrophe” would not be caused by war but a virus.
He said: “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war – not missiles, but microbes.
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“Part of the reason for this is we have invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents, but we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We’re not ready for the next epidemic.”
Referencing the first Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2013-2016, Gates said the world was “far slower than we should have been” to respond, lacking personnel and epidemiologists. He described it as a “global failure”.
He repeated his warning in 2017, writing in Business Insider that a fast-moving airborne virus could kill tens of millions of people.
“Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year,” he wrote.
“And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10-15 years.”