Last week, Bill Gates hit global headlines after an interview with Sky News in which he responded with an emphatic ‘No’ to a question on whether lifting intellectual property protection on Covid-19 vaccines and sharing vaccine manufacture formulas with developing countries will be helpful in the fight against this pandemic.
His answer attracted criticism and furore, but this isn’t the first time he has made such an outrageous statement. Early last year, he warned that the Covid-19 could hit Africa worse than China and that 10 million may die worldwide.
Two months later, his wife Belinda Gates made the more harrowing prediction that the pandemic would have the worst impact in the developing world, and that she could foresee bodies lying around the streets of African countries.
How Belinda Gates managed to come up with such prediction was shocking because Covid-19 is not as fatal as Ebola. She overestimated what she knew about pandemics and underestimated Africa’s resilience and experience in handling past epidemics.
But if anyone took time to listen to Bill Gates’ interview, the philanthropist was right and wrong at the same time.
Let us start from where Bill Gates is wrong. He says sharing the vaccine formula is not the issue that is holding effective response, as some pharmaceuticals have already done that.
This time around it was Bill Gates underestimating the access to vaccine problem. Fact is, the main issue that has resulted in the delay of the rollout of vaccines in developing countries is that those able to afford are putting money on the table of pharmaceuticals and booking all the supply, locking out developing countries.
The issue is that Bill Gates is coming from a position where he believes that the coronavirus will be eradicated in one or two years from now.
But no pandemic has been eradicated within a short period, and the virus keeps mutating. So sharing the vaccine formula with developing countries to develop their manufacturing capacity is a safe solution.
Countries that have the licence got it later in the pandemic period. And it had to take developing countries to lobby around invoking of the WTO TRIPS Agreement which allows access of intellectual property of medicines when WTO members wish to protect their public health.
Where Bill Gates is right is the argument about preparedness of developing countries’ manufacturing capacity, which he explained well in the interview. There aren’t factories in Africa, for example, with the requisite regulatory approvals ready for the vaccine formula and commercial manufacturing. Countries will have to set up these factories, meet regulatory approvals then do trial test because the safety of the vaccines is paramount in medicine manufacturing.
Building this capacity is not a one-day task. The process can easily go wrong and make the pandemic situation worse than it is, with unsafe vaccines putting more lives at risk.
So, I wonder why Bill Gates responded to the question about lifting intellectual property protection with a strong “No” yet in his explanation he gave a contrary statement.
The best response would have been that importation of vaccines should still continue as a short-term strategy to contain the spread of the virus and sharing of the vaccines with developing countries as the long-term strategy of eradicating the virus.
But the fact that the Gates Foundation, which is the largest donor of many private-public-partnership investments in global health, didn’t commit to helping developing countries to establish their vaccine manufacturing capacity as a long-term strategy says a lot about his “No” answer.
Bill Gates through his foundation is known to focus on disease-specific vertical health interventions— investing in vaccines, instead of horizontal approach of investing in strengthening overall systems.