INTERVIEW: Bill Gates, vaccines and the fight against COVID-19

INTERVIEW: Bill Gates, vaccines and the fight against COVID-19
INTERVIEW: Bill Gates, vaccines and the fight against COVID-19

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Hassan Damluji, the deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, gave a candid, perhaps pessimistic view of the coronavirus pandemic that has upturned everyone’s lives.

“Some people are thinking it’s all over, and it may be receding in their countries, but actually, globally, it’s a very worrying picture,” he told Arab News. “We’re deep into wave three.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the multibillion-dollar philanthropic organization started by the Microsoft founder and his wife. It is now one of the most important players in the fight against the virus.

“The first wave hit China, other countries were relatively unaffected and China had big problems while other countries were underestimating the risk,” Damluji explained. 

“The second wave really hit the world’s wealthiest countries, in Europe, North America but also East Asia and that is now reducing, though cases in America are still quite high. Wave three now is where middle and lower-income countries are being hit, especially Latin America, which is the center of the pandemic, but also Pakistan, which is in my region so I look at it closely, but also across Africa, where you’ve seen cases increase.”

He has direct responsibility for the fund’s activities in the Middle East, so is in a strong position to gauge the regional response to the crisis. Damluji was most recently involved in a five-year fundraising cycle for GAVI, the global vaccine alliance.

Saudi Arabia took a strong lead at the event and contributed $150 million toward a pot that eventually reached $8.8 billion, some $1.2 billion more than was being asked for. The Kingdom had earlier pledged a total of $500 million toward antivirus activities at a G20 meeting in Riyadh. Damluji is appreciative of Saudi Arabia’s efforts.

“That was very generous and that was a really powerful kick-off for the fundraising. The Saudis came in early. What was powerful was not just that they were putting money in, but they sent a signal and others had an obligation to follow. That was great leadership, given that Saudi Arabia is the president of the G20.

“It surpassed expectations, but the need is going to be bigger because of what’s going on with the virus. Saudi Arabia really stepped up with regard to procurement for coronavirus vaccines when they become available. That was really important.”

The money raised by GAVI — to which the Gates Foundation is a major contributor — will be used to help develop a vaccine against the coronavirus disease, as well as funding its other work in the field of immunization and medical treatment in some of the world’s poorest countries.


BIO

Born: London 1982.

Education

  • Westminster School, London.
  • Chelsea College, Fine Art Foundation.

  • Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, BA Classics and Arabic.

  • Harvard University, MA Middle East Studies.

Career

  • Senior engagement manager, McKinsey & Co.

  • Chief operating officer, New Schools Network.
  • Chief operating officer, Achievement for All.

  • Deputy director, global policy and advocacy, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


Damluji offered a sobering assessment of current progress toward finding a vaccine.

“In terms of developing tools to combat it, we’re still at the research and development phase. People want to know a date when a vaccine will be available, but the truth is that in innovation, sometimes things never happen, sometimes they happen much faster than you thought, and sometimes they take a circuitous route.

“For example no one thought the brave new world would be the iPhone in your pocket. So it’s very difficult to predict how R&D will proceed, but when it comes to a vaccine, what is clear is that this is the fastest, most-concerted and best-funded effort to create a vaccine ever.

“There are some early candidates for a successful vaccine which have shown some promising results, so there is reason to be optimistic. The early ones we’re seeing, whether it’s the Oxford-AstraZeneca one or others, tend to be on the same technological platform, and it’s because of that similarity that they’ve been able to move fast. But if one of them fails, they’ll likely all fail, because it’s the same basic approach in terms of the science.”

There is a glimmer of hope for an early outcome. “If we’re lucky, several of them will work quite quickly and, by the middle of next year, we’ll have quite a lot of vaccines on the market.”

But that was not guaranteed, he warned. “If we’re unlucky, none of them will work and then we’ll have hundreds (of possible vaccines) out there on different timelines. We will eventually get a vaccine, but it’s overly optimistic to think of the middle of next year as a definite.”

There is a risk that, while the world’s best scientific brains are concentrating on finding a vaccine, attention will be distracted from other serious infectious diseases that are afflicting the world, especially in the poorest countries.

For example, the Gates Foundation invested a lot of time and effort into a campaign to eradicate polio, which hit countries in the Middle East and Asia particularly hard. It came close to declaring victory against this disease, only for it to re-emerge as a threat in Pakistan.

“There is a big risk. The polio vaccination campaigns in Pakistan, home to the most cases of ‘wild’ polio, have stopped for several months now. We had hoped to restart them this month, but the course of the pandemic in Pakistan — it still hasn’t hit the peak — means we still haven’t restarted, and are now hoping for August.

“So polio vaccinations in Pakistan have just stopped. You might hope that some of the social distancing measures against COVID-19 would also reduce the transmission of other diseases, but the fact is that, certainly for polio, the program has taken a big hit,” Damluji said, adding that it was difficult for developing countries to combat more than one serious disease at a time. “In poor countries, when you do more of one thing you do less of another. When the Ebola crisis hit West Africa, far more people died from a lack of availability of basic health services, not from Ebola. It’s very likely you’re going to see the same kind of thing with the coronavirus.”

The Gates Foundation, and especially its founder, have been the target of some wild conspiracy theories since the pandemic broke. Despite Bill Gates’ commitment to use the billions he made from Microsoft for philanthropic purposes, and especially to combat coronavirus, he has been accused, in some of the wilder parts of social media, of bidding for world domination.

Damluji has no time for the conspiracists.

“I think this shows the importance of quality journalism. In the online world, there is nothing to prevent you writing whatever you want, and if people find something they think is interesting they will forward it and it will spread. What we’ve found is that quality journalistic sources, by and large, if they report this kind of conspiracy theory at all, they report it as something very strange that other people are saying, rather than as fact, and they’re actually rebutting it. That’s been really good to see.

“Anyone who is concerned to find out whether these things are true should look at reputable sources and they’ll find very little evidence to make them believe it. In the wild west of WhatsApp forwarding all kinds of things are said.”

The Gates Foundation is “laser-focused” on ethical standards, but takes a pragmatic approach to the funding process. “Our basic approach is that we work with governments across the world to do as much as we can to save lives and achieve the goals we’re trying to achieve. There is criticism of a lot of governments, some of it is valid, some of it isn’t, and that applies across the board,” he said.

There has also been a worry that, in view of the economic crisis the world is facing, contributions to philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation will dry up as governments and individuals perceive a need for a “charity begins at home” approach.

“One of the things to be concerned about is whether long-term aid — not just philanthropy, but bigger than that, government aid for things like GAVI or other programs that save lives and improve livelihoods — if those are damaged over the long term, then it’s a cause for concern.

“In terms of the question of are governments getting it right or wrong, that’s not for me to say. There are balances to strike, and only an individual society can decide the difficult trade-off between death versus economic damage.”

But he is adamant on one thing: Governments across the world must adopt policies to prevent another pandemic.

“If we had built a stronger pandemic preparedness system, we would not be in the situation we are now,” he said.

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