Interview / The billionaire philanthropist believes that this is the time for "cooperation", not for a hasty denunciation of China.
From the beginning of this pandemic, which you had predicted very accurately, it seems that you are in touch with the whole world to structure a global response to the COVID-19 challenge. A call to action was launched this Saturday at the initiative of the WHO, your foundation and many countries, including France. What are you hoping for?
It is true that I gave a conference in 2015, anticipating the pandemic and describing in detail, in the New England Review of Medicine, about the measures that should have been taken. The idea was to get ready, when the time came, to quickly increase our testing capacity and involve the industry so that it could quickly produce therapy and then vaccines.
But, eventually, very little was done. Two foundations, the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation, as well as a number of states, donated a modest sum to the Epidemic Preparation Center (CEPI), which has invested in some research on vaccines, which we consider very important, promising not only to defeat this pandemic, but to cure other diseases.
But much remains to be done. Today we suffer a loss that affects the whole world, with much suffering and economic damage. At the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we bring some of the expertise that helps to understand vaccine platforms and interact with the private sector to help differentiate between the hundreds of vaccines that are in development - and those that can be developed on a scale wide.
Almost all vaccine research is done in the private sector, and since we are neutral actors and have access to all the experts - I am in contact with most of the company CEOs, we ask them to make their production capacities available. I also ask them to think about how to produce 7 billion doses of vaccines, even 14 billion.
Reading your note published in COVID-19, you seem to be betting more on a vaccine than on therapies. Why?
It is important to work on therapies, which can be put to service more easily than vaccines, because they do not need to be tested on such a large scale. The UK is working especially on the therapies we have identified as promising. They have already been introduced into the NHS health system, which looks to see if they can change the course of the disease.
The vaccine is important because it is undoubtedly the way we will return to normal…
If some of the therapies at the top of the list fail, there are always some that remain promising, such as the use of hyperimmunoglobulin, which we take from the blood of cured patients and injected back into patients. But for the world to return to normal, we will need either highly effective therapy or a vaccine. The vaccine is very important, because no doubt this is how we will get back to normal.
In your article, you say that the closure has undoubtedly saved "millions of lives". But add that we will certainly live with COVID-19 for a long time, especially if a vaccine takes months, even years…
It's true. We will not return to normalcy for one to two years. We can get out of this first phase by establishing an activity system that works without the risk of returning to the exponential phase of progress from the beginning. With a testing and tracking system, we may be able to quickly identify areas of infection and stop them.
But we will not return to a completely normal activity because people will worry too much about the idea of infection and will drastically change their behavior. Even government decisions will not return them to stadiums until it is proven that therapies or a vaccine leave the risk of death.
You spoke on the phone with President Macron about the global effort launched this Saturday at the initiative of the WHO. The United States did not join. Are you talking to President Trump?
I have not spoken to President Trump, but several times with Dr. Fauci (who advises the White House on health strategy, NDLR), with Health Secretary Alex Azar, and the vice president. Even if the United States does not participate in this phase of the global effort launched last Saturday, I think they will be crucial participants, given the importance of American medical research, for its historic role in vaccine and AIDS research. -s. We need to end this disease globally, not only because we care about other people, but also because we want the global economy to recover and we do not want imports to risk provoking a dramatic return of the epidemic.
The time of balance will surely come, but pointing the finger at the culprits today is not a constructive approach…
You have criticized the freezing of the United States financial contribution to the WHO, but do you understand the American anger, given the WHO's apparent complacency with China?
There is no stronger connection between an agency and a country than what exists between the United States and the World Health Organization. If you look at the current composition of the WHO, you will see that the percentage of people working in the WHO, who are or have been employed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is very high.
This is a good thing, because the CDC has historically been a very effective organization, which has played a major role in eradicating chickenpox, and in efforts against polio. So I do not understand why the reduction of the American contribution to the WHO is worrying today, in the midst of a pandemic. Of course, the time will come to evaluate all of our responses. I'm sure we will see that the WHO could have managed things differently. But the idea that it has distorted reality in favor of a state is not correct.
Should Beijing be held accountable for concealing the truth about the epidemic?
It is very difficult to be the state where an epidemic is declared. Starting at a certain point, China used harsh methods to stop the virus and is no longer a source of spreading the infection. The time of balance will certainly come, but pointing the finger at the culprits today is not a constructive approach. Our economy has stopped, the world is suffering, the priority must be cooperation.
Don't you think it's essential to know where this virus comes from, from a lab, from a market, to find the cure?
We realized the sequence of this virus in record time! The Chinese made all the data accessible. Everything they had, they gave us.
Despite the generosity of your philanthropic projects, you cause hatred. Conspiracy theorists accuse you of inventing the virus to sell "your vaccines"! Why so much virulence?
This virus has caused enormous destruction, to an incredible degree. I, too, who had foreseen this kind of pandemic, was surprised by the extent of the damage. For people to think I could have done such a thing is really stupid. Our foundation is used to donate money, to save lives, we do not make money with our projects.
Your Strategic Investment Fund arouses gossip and curiosity. Can you explain how it works?
We are able to lower the price of the polio vaccine because we are committed to purchasing significant volumes over several years. This allows the companies to which we give this guarantee to build plants, the volume of production of which will have a guaranteed market. On the other hand, if we see a company that has technology that can save many lives in developing countries, we support its work by investing in it. If these investments produce profits, we reinvest them 100% in the foundation, which gives us funds to eradicate malaria, polio…
Since 2000, we and our partners have reduced the number of deaths from infectious diseases from 10 million to 5 million per year.
Are you, a businessman, a philanthropist or both?
I am no longer a businessman, if being a businessman means increasing your profit. I increase the number of lives saved or improved. Since 2000, we and our partners have reduced the number of deaths from infectious diseases from 10 million to 5 million per year. Our criteria are lives saved. I can do it because I am spending money I have earned in my previous career.
How do you choose your projects? There has been a lot of criticism that you have the company Monsanto partner…
We are against malnutrition because it is one of the reasons why children in developing countries are more likely to die than in France or the United States. Helping farmers provide seeds that can withstand drought and other natural disasters seems to us to be a worthy cause of interest.
Tracking applications created to combat COVID-19 are causing real concern over the fact that we can sacrifice our privacy. Can hell be spread with good technological intentions?
Read my memo again! I am not at all involved in tracking techniques and I even say that western countries will not agree to submit their GPS data to governments. In my memoir, I refer to the German method (which consists of finding each individually infected person to find out who they have been in contact with) as the method to be followed.
There are also tools based on volunteering, so that technologies can refresh people’s memories. But I do not think Western countries will use the South Korean method. It is up to governments to decide. My prediction is that they will not. Checking GPS data is not a magic solution.
China has made great strides in Medical Research and Artificial Intelligence, and many pharmaceutical companies have withdrawn from its ability to collect data. Are you concerned about this Chinese positioning, given the totalitarian nature of the regime?
If you can help cure cancer, I think it will be seen as a good thing, whatever the nature of governance. China will be a major contributor to medical science, even though it is by no means at the level of the United States. In the face of illness, we are all on the same boat. If I am in the last stage of cancer, I will not wonder if the pill I am taking comes from a country whose political system I do not like. We should rejoice in the fact that the world is becoming smarter and information about the coronavirus is shared between countries. Because that way we will defeat him.
We are talking about an education crisis in the United States, including a shortage of students graduating in engineering studies or medical research. Are you worried?
Of course, I am very concerned about this problem. COVID-19 has the full attention of the Foundation, even in its non-medical aspects. In our educational projects, we have also thought about how to develop the online learning process. Three full months of school have gone to waste. And unfortunately it is the schools for the disadvantaged, which have less capacity to connect to the internet and do not have the right tools, while the affluent neighborhoods are doing much better. As usual, the bad news mainly affects people with lower incomes…
China is in fact the most reliable supplier of these ingredients compared to Western countries, which did not respond so quickly to the crisis.
Many believe this crisis has exposed the pitfalls of globalization and the dangers of over-reliance on China for certain strategic products, such as medicines. Do you agree that globalization should be stopped? Do we need to deglobalize and repatriate certain products?
I find it strange that everyone wants to use this epidemic to develop their ideas, even if it has nothing to do with it. We had no market disruption during this pandemic for medicinal ingredients! China is today the most reliable supplier of these ingredients compared to Western countries, which could not respond so quickly to the crisis.
No, I do not think that using this crisis to promote xenophobic views is justified. The idea that every small town will start producing its own cars! F Facts are needed to discuss this. What products have disappeared globally due to the crisis? At the Gates Foundation, we have focused on pandemics and collaboration, not political criticism.
What do you dream of accomplishing in your life?
For now, all my attention is focused on how to fight COVID-19. It interferes with so many things and causes just as much economic damage and mental disorders that we can hardly imagine its contours. It's really dramatic and whatever we can do to help, we will do it.
Source: Le Figaro / Monitor