Last week, Bill Gates made headlines around the world after an interview with Sky News in which he responded with a categorical ‘no’ to a question about whether lifting intellectual property protection on Covid-19 vaccines and sharing vaccine manufacturing formulas with developing countries will be useful in the fight against this pandemic.
His response sparked criticism and fury, but it is not the first time that he has made such an outrageous statement. At the beginning of last year, he warned that the Covid-19 could strike Africa worse than China and that 10 million people could die around the world.
Two months later, his wife Belinda Gates made the most heartbreaking prediction that the pandemic would have the worst impact in the developing world and that she could predict bodies lying around the streets of African countries.
How Belinda Gates managed to make such a prediction was shocking because Covid-19 is not as deadly as Ebola. She overestimated what she knew about pandemics and underestimated Africa’s resilience and experience in dealing with past epidemics.
But if anyone took the time to listen to Bill Gates’ interview, the philanthropist was right and wrong at the same time.
Let’s start where Bill Gates is wrong. He says sharing the vaccine formula isn’t the issue holding back an effective response, as some pharmaceuticals have already done so.
This time, it was Bill Gates who underestimated the problem of access to vaccines. The point is that the main problem that has delayed the rollout of vaccines in developing countries is that those who can afford it are putting money on the pharmaceutical table and reserving all the supply, thus locking countries down. development.
The problem is, Bill Gates comes from a position where he believes the coronavirus will be eradicated in a year or two.
But no pandemic has been eradicated in a short time and the virus continues to mutate. Sharing the vaccine formula with developing countries to develop their manufacturing capacity is therefore a safe solution.
Countries that have the license obtained it later in the pandemic period. And developing countries had to be brought up to pressure to invoke the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement which allows access to intellectual property in medicines when WTO members wish to protect their public health.
Where Bill Gates is right is the argument about preparing the manufacturing capacity of developing countries, which he made clear in the interview. There are no factories in Africa, for example, with the required regulatory approvals ready for vaccine formulation and commercial manufacture. Countries will need to set up these factories, meet regulatory approvals, and then perform trial tests because vaccine safety is paramount in drug manufacturing.
Building this capacity is not a one-day task. The process can easily go wrong and worsen the pandemic situation, with dangerous vaccines putting more lives at risk.
So, I wonder why Bill Gates answered the question about lifting intellectual property protection with a strong “no”, but in his explanation he made a contrary statement.
The best answer would have been that the import of vaccines should continue as a short-term strategy to contain the spread of the virus and share the vaccines with developing countries as a long-term strategy to eradicate the virus.
But the fact that the Gates Foundation, which is the largest donor of many public-private partnership investments in global health, has failed to commit to helping developing countries establish their vaccine manufacturing capacity as a long term strategy says a lot about its “No answer.
Bill Gates, through his foundation, is known to focus on vertical disease-specific health interventions – investing in vaccines, instead of a horizontal approach of investing in strengthening global systems.