Bill Gates is a man of science, logic, and reason.
So the Microsoft cofounder and cochair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has a hard time with some people’s aversion to wearing masks during the global COVID-19 pandemic and with the popularity of conspiracy theories about vaccines to combat the disease.
“Not wearing masks is hard to understand, because it’s not that bothersome,” Gates said today at the annual meeting of the Fast Company Impact Council, which was held virtually. “It’s not expensive, and yet some people feel it’s a sign of freedom or something, despite risk of infecting other people.”
His foundation is helping health officials battle COVID-19 with more than $350 million in funding, but he hears his name bandied about as part of some sort of nefarious scheme.
“A lot of it comes in the form of conspiracy, where someone’s got some plot and my name even comes up as potentially at the center of some conspiracies, so it is a bit scary,” Gates said. “You’d want to be driven towards the facts in a crisis like this.”
Gates has long been a fan of vaccines and cites them as a reason why he and his wife got into charity work. Among their first donations was to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, according to this foundation’s website; the organization has been credited with saving more than 13 million lives over the last two decades due to the 760-plus million children it’s immunized.
Four-pronged approach to beating COVID-19
Vaccines are part of the Gates Foundation’s four-pronged approach to combating COVID-19, along with developing diagnostic tools, treatments, and ways to protect vulnerable communities. Gates said the foundation is rushing as much as possible.
In terms of why we haven’t made better progress, he spread the blame on leaders, public health experts, and whoever is getting certain messages out.
“Can the social media companies be more helpful on these issues? What creativity do we have? Sadly, the digital tools probably have been a net contributor to spreading what I consider crazy ideas,” he said.
But Gates remains positive, pointing to the more than 100 different projects underway, including at least a dozen helmed by companies with strong track records in securing government approvals for vaccines and manufacturing them. He’s gunning for a COVID-19 vaccine next year—likely a two-dose regimen.
“Just the breadth of that portfolio using every technique that we’ve ever used to create vaccines and some new ones, that gives me hope that in 2021, one of these vaccines will work,” he said. “The dream would be to have 14 billion doses and just get to everyone overnight.”
The exact timeline will depend on which vaccine works. If it’s what he calls one of “the lead ones,” you’re looking at the early part of the year. Otherwise, it’d be the second half of the year.
Who gets the vaccine first will depend on what it does better—block transmission or prevent people from getting sick.
Along the way, Gates has learned a lot about biology and continues to preach about global health, as the world, including his place in it, faces this monumental challenge.
“Let’s drive innovation,” he said. “Let’s get behind new ideas. It’s very common to the work I did at Microsoft for a long time. The skills I built up over my career are very well matched to the work of the foundation.”