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The Gates Foundation is giving $1.6 billion to ensure people get all the other vaccines they need too

The donation will help ensure that diseases such as polio, yellow fever, and measles don’t spread as the world focuses attention and funding on the coronavirus.

The Gates Foundation is giving $1.6 billion to ensure people get all the other vaccines they need too
Belindah Nailaintei, 3 months, receives an oral polio vaccine at Iloodariak Dispensary in Kajiado, Kenya. [Photo: ©Gates Archive/Dominique Catton]

As the Gates Foundation works to help pharmaceutical companies scale up factories to make a COVID-19 vaccine before a vaccine is ready—knowing that’s the only way we will be prepared to quickly make enough doses for the entire world—it’s also trying to ensure that existing vaccines such as those for polio and measles don’t fall behind because of the pandemic.

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In the foundation’s largest grant to date, it just gave $1.6 billion to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which is attempting to raise $7.4 billion in funds at the Global Vaccine Summit today. Since the organization started two decades ago (with support from the Gates Foundation, along with others, including the U.K. government), it has immunized more than 750 million children in the world’s poorest countries, saving an estimated 13 million lives.

Vaccines in cold storage at the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation Division of Vaccines and Immunization (DVI) facility in Nairobi, Kenya. [Photo: ©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Frederic Courbet]

The coronavirus pandemic is threatening that work. There are 17 diseases—including yellow fever, HPV, meningitis A, measles-rubella, and typhoid—that Gavi supplies vaccines for. One of the largest concerns is the potential that polio, which is nearly eradicated, could begin to spread again as healthcare systems struggle to deal with COVID-19 and because of the logistical difficulties of administering vaccines when the new virus makes it dangerous to be in close contact. “Millions of children are missing their vaccines, and we’ll have to fund catching up on that,” Gates said on a press call. “If not, we could have literally millions of deaths from the failure to vaccinate there.”

Vaccines at the Masaka Hospital in the Kicukiro district of Kigali, Rwanda, on June 28, 2018. [Photo: ©Gates Archive/Samantha Reinders]

The foundation is also giving Gavi $100 million for an “advance market commitment” fund that will help buy COVID-19 vaccines for low-income countries when they’re ready. The organization used a similar mechanism to incentivize manufacturers to make a low-cost pneumonia vaccine, which Gates says helped cut the cost of the vaccine in half. (Doctors Without Borders has argued that this didn’t go far enough and that the vaccines are still too expensive.) In the case of a COVID-19 vaccine, Gates says that some vaccines could be as inexpensive as $4 a dose, and that most manufacturers don’t plan to profit, seeing the vaccine as a necessary public good. But doses will still be limited as manufacturing ramps up, and the new fund will help poorer countries compete.

A child receives oral polio vaccine in the Kamla Nehru Nagar slum in Patna, India. [Photo: ©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Prashant Panjiar]
It’s critical, he says, that the entire world have access to the vaccine. “We have, right now, a lot of countries working with various manufacturers for supply for their country. But we need to overlay that approach with a global approach so that most of the output is going through a rational system of allocating doses to those most at risk, and making sure that even the countries that can’t compete financially for that access, that they’re considered—and their health workers, their elderly, are able to get access to this.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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