For Bill Gates, it is obvious that world leaders will fund a global health team to prevent the next pandemic.
“We’re just not that irrational,” the self-proclaimed billionaire philanthropist data enthusiast said of the alternative.
Gates’ pitch: a global outbreak response and mobilization team – or GERM, humorously, for short.
In a video interview from the Kirkland offices of his private investment firm, he said that for about $1 billion a year, with the United States likely to bring in $250 million, the team would be “the best deal you’ll ever see”.
“More Americans have died in [the pandemic] that many Americans have died in all wars combined,” Gates said. “That thing was, you know, super bad.” Compared to the cost of fighting climate change or opioid abuse, for example, “the sums involved here are actually quite small”.
The team proposed by Gates is a key idea in his book “How to Prevent the Next Pandemic”, which was published in May with the aim of sparking debate – not only about GERM, but also about improving testing, accelerating the development of vaccines and treatments and strengthening global health systems.
Yet Gates — whose fortune and foundation, co-chaired with ex-wife Melinda French Gates, give him outsized influence over public health — said the team discussion “started a little slower than expected.”
Preventing the pandemic is “not a big topic in Congress, or even in the executive branch, right now,” he said.
Gates’ book came at an odd time in the COVID-19 arc. New coronavirus variants have spread rapidly but are less deadly. And many people have ditched their masks and sense of urgency to fend off the virus, focusing instead on other issues.: the war in Ukraine, decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, hearings of January 6.
Nor are world leaders showing the sense of urgency over the pandemic that some would like.
“Incrementalism and realism have recently become the de facto watchwords of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Carolyn Reynolds of the Pandemic Action Network and J. Stephen Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a June article. “Pandemic fatigue has quickly taken root in Washington and in capitals around the world.”
Reynolds and Morrison say there’s a silver lining: G-20 countries, with the world’s largest economies, have agreed to create a fund for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. But current commitments of about $1 billion, including $15 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are $9 billion short of the annual target.
Speaking in late June on the day the World Bank approved the pandemic fund, Gates noted few details have emerged on what specific purpose it will be used for. In theory, he said, some of the money could be spent on creating a global team like the germ.
Others have come up with a similar idea. As Gates envisions, GERM would be made up of around 3,000 experts, run by the World Health Organization, whose full-time job would be to monitor outbreaks, respond quickly, and prevent them from happening. turn into global catastrophes. He compares these experts to professional firefighters, constantly alert and ready to spring into action.
Such a team could have made a big difference with COVID, he said. “If there had been a slightly faster response, the number of countries affected would have been considerably less.”
Gates could probably fund GERM in its entirety. But he has no intention of doing that, other than a small amount of start-up money, because of what he sees as a matter of legitimacy.
He said if the team is going to tell countries that their lack of pandemic preparedness puts the masses at risk, for example, the team must be funded primarily by governments – not philanthropy.
Scott Dowell, a deputy director of the Gates Foundation who has overseen much of the organization’s pandemic preparedness work, explained, “What we don’t want to do is have people think, ‘Oh , it’s something the Gates Foundation is going to fund, or it’s going to be imposed from Seattle.’ »
Gates, whose $50 billion foundation of nearly 1,800 employees has promoted programs on everything from education to family planning to disease eradication, has long been praised and criticized for his impact on the world. Criticism has turned into wild conspiracy theories during the pandemic: One is that Gates is plotting to control the global healthcare system; another, that he monitors people with microchips in vaccines. (He has also been criticized for his long relationship with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.)
“I’ve decided the best way forward is to keep doing the work,” Gates writes in his book.
As a result, the foundation continues its efforts to get GERM off the ground.
Dowell said he and Valerie Nkamgang Bemo, another deputy director at the foundation, had spent the past six months in a “listening phase”.
Some of the world’s public health leaders they spoke to said, “It’s crazy, it can’t work that way,” Dowell recalled..
Some like the idea of a professional force based in their country that coordinates with professional responders and international authorities, Dowell said, but bristled at the prospect of a group of outsiders “sweeping and taking in charge our nation’s public health response.”
The team would be largely decentralized, with staff members around the world, but Gates noted that some poor countries, like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have limited disease control capacity, so “you’re going to need to be able to fly in.”
The foundation, aided by a small group of external leaders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other organizations, is now entering a “design phase” to flesh out a detailed plan and get more input, Dowell said.
If things stay on track, he added, they might be able to fund the team in a dozen countries by the fall.
“I don’t know if we’ll hit that deadline,” Gates said, however. “You know, without the war in Ukraine, maybe we would.”
Drug Libraries and universal vaccines
In addition to the annual billion dollars for GERM, considerable funding would be needed to fulfill Gates’ wish list of scientific research and development.
He lays out a host of possibilities in his book. Among them: fostering innovative ways to rapidly test large numbers of people, creating “libraries” of drug compounds that can be quickly scanned to see if they are effective against new viruses, and developing “universal” vaccines that prepare the body to fight viruses. which do not yet exist.
As with GERM, Gates said he believes the funding will eventually materialize, pandemic fatigue or otherwise..
“People were probably tired of World War II,” he said, but it’s a government’s job to protect its citizens.
Preventing the pandemic is not foreign aid, he stressed, and is in the interests of all countries. Additionally, he said, the National Institutes of Health will certainly fund some of the research — as will China, Japan and various European countries.
A strong supporter of industry whose foundation opposed waiving patent protections on COVID vaccines before changing course, Gates said the potential in the vaccine market will also spur private investment.
Some of the scientific research on Gates’ wish list could take place in Seattle, which is home to a multitude of infectious disease experts.
Gates mentioned Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, whose COVID prediction models are widely cited across the country; computational biologist Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, whose work on the Seattle Flu Study helped track the progress of COVID; and the International Public Health Leadership Program, a UW program bringing together public health leaders in Africa.
PATH, a Seattle-based global health nonprofit, also played a crucial role in changing the direction of the Gates Foundation in the 1990s, he recalled. At a meeting convened by PATH, Gates learned for the first time that better health leads people to have fewer children. At the time, largely focused on reproductive health, the foundation turned to disease eradication.
The foundation’s COVID work has taken it in a new direction; until the pandemic, his work on diseases focused on those afflicting poor countries without lucrative markets for vaccines and treatments. The foundation has so far contributed more than $2 billion to its pandemic response, with more to come. Citing COVID and other crises, the foundation announced this week that it was increasing its payout by 50%, to $9 billion a year.
Looking ahead, Gates warns in his book, “We must be careful not to get caught fighting the last war.”
He said the next pandemic could come from anywhere, although he assumes Africa is a contender as climate change and population growth can bring humans and animals closer together in ways that cause disease. . While COVID is most dangerous for older people, a new pandemic could disproportionately affect young people — and who’s to say what the death rate will be.
“Any time something emerges, it can be much worse than what we experienced this time,” Gates said.
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Post expires at 2:01pm on Thursday July 21st, 2022