ALLELUIA, said the man on the radio as the news broke that the Oxford Covid vaccine has been deemed highly effective. Praise the Lord, indeed, I thought, and recalled the expanded version of the phrase — reportedly uttered by a United States Navy chaplain during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”
The man who passed a magazine-load of ammunition in the fight against Covid-19 is Bill Gates, who has played a key part in the development of not just one vaccine, but many. He became interested in immunisations in the late 1990s. Fascinated by the technology, he donated huge amounts of cash. Polio, which once paralysed a thousand children every day, has been virtually eradicated worldwide, thanks to Gates Foundation donations, which have helped vaccinate a staggering 2.5 billion children.
But he did more. He asked why more money went into treatments for baldness than research on malaria. Western drug companies, he found, would not work on diseases whose victims were too poor to buy medicines. So, he created an innovative business model by which individuals and governments would guarantee to buy new drugs in volume to incentivise Big Pharma to develop them. To date, he, personally, has spent more than $16 billion on vaccine programmes.
Then he added a voice that was prophetic. After funding the 2014 fight against the Ebola virus, he warned the world that a disease as deadly as that, if it was also as infectious as influenza, could kill ten million people. He repeated the warning every year in various forums, but world leaders ignored him. Donald Trump, after being lobbied by Mr Gates in a private meeting at the White House, even responded by cutting the US Disease Control budget and pulling out of the World Health Organization.
Mr Gates has had small thanks for all this. Indeed, he has been the subject of a succession of wild conspiracy theories suggesting that his vaccines kill, are covert attempts to depopulate the planet, or are cover for him to implant microchips in people in a bid for world domination.
He has responded with more philanthropy. In 2017, he spent $100 million launching the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations at Davos, to invest in experimental vaccines that could be manufactured quickly and were suitable for the developing world. In 2019, just weeks before the Covid outbreak in China, he financed the epidemiological equivalent of global war games “to discover the holes in our medical defences”.
To date, he has spent $694 million building capacity for Covid-vaccine distribution in the developing world. He has given grants or made investments in five of the companies leading the race to discover a successful vaccine. Sir John Bell, who leads the development of Oxford’s health-research strategies, chairs the Gates Foundation’s scientific advisory committee. Now, Mr Gates is backing the world’s largest vaccine-maker, Serum Institute, of India, to produce 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine, priced at less than $3 a shot for poorer countries.
At last, we are seeing light at the end of the Covid tunnel. Praise the Lord — but give Mr Gates an honourable mention on the side.
Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg by Paul Vallely is published by Bloomsbury (Books, 11 September)