Speaking Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist said that the increased funding could save the lives of about 8 million children, an estimate based on work commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation* from public health experts at Johns Hopkins University.
Since its founding, the foundation has spent about $4.5 billion on vaccines.
“We’re continuing to ramp up the amount we’re spending on vaccines because it’s been such a good investment,” Gates told NPR. He said that right now 79 percent of the world’s children get a DTP (diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis) vaccine; he wants to raise that to 90 percent.
He also wants to make the most of two new vaccines just becoming available: one against pneumococcal disease and the other against rotavirus, the most common cause of deadly diarrhea in children.
In fact, a study published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the rotavirus vaccine reduced severe cases by more than 60 percent in a trial in South Africa and Malawi, and the World Health Organization has now recommended it for all infants.
“The next step is really a financial commitment to financing the vaccine [distribution],” said Kathy Neuzil, the lead author of the study. Neuzil is a researcher at PATH, a non-profit health agency that did the study for the WHO. News of the Gates funding “has made everyone here very happy today,” she said.
Gates’ estimate of 8 million lives saved is based on an assumption that the rotavirus vaccine and the new pneumococcal disease vaccine will reach 80 percent of the world’s children by 2020.
That’s a tall order, given that many poor countries lack critical infrastructure, such as enough refrigeration capacity to store the vaccines. The foundation’s funding will go toward developing that infrastructure as well as new vaccine research.
Julian Lob-Levyt is executive secretary of the GAVI Alliance, a partnership of health agencies, charities and drug makers that is funded by Gates.
“If other donors follow the lead of the Gates Foundation and step up their funding for vaccines, GAVI has the ability to immunize millions of children against the world’s two biggest childhood killers, pneumonia and diarrhea,” he told the New York Times.
The Johns Hopkins University estimate of 8 million lives saved also relies on an assumption that a new malaria vaccine being developed by GlaxoSmithKline will begin reaching children by 2014.
However, it does not rely on any new developments in the search for vaccines for AIDS or tuberculosis, two diseases for which it has proven more difficult to develop effective vaccines.
*For the record, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a NewsHour underwriter.