Bill Gates, the billionaire and philanthropist who sounded a prescient warning five years ago about the threat of a global pandemic, spoke about the need for more testing and vaccine capabilities in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
When Gates warned in a 2015 TED Talk that “if anything kills 10 million people, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war,” he envisioned a scenario not unlike the one the world is facing right now.
The financial downturn caused by the virus will likely cost the global economy even more than Gates had predicted. While the Microsoft founder had estimated a global pandemic like this could cost global markets around $3 trillion, the Asian Development Bank has warned it could reach $4.1 trillion.
“The whole goal of speaking out wasn’t to say I told you so, it was to make sure we did the right thing,” Gates told PBS NewsHour managing editor and anchor Judy Woodruff on Tuesday. “Sadly, not many of those things were done, so now we’re scrambling” for therapeutics and a vaccine to treat and prevent COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, Gates said.
Gates — whose foundation has pledged to spend billions of dollars to develop a vaccine that will safeguard against the coronavirus — spoke about what he believes needs to be done now in order to improve testing and treatment capabilities in the U.S., as well as what he envisions the world will look like as it deals with the fallout of this unprecedented global event.
More highlights from the interview:
On improving testing and vaccination capabilities: While President Donald Trump had promised early on that Americans would have easy access to COVID-19 testing, there were issues with the initial tests rolled out by the CDC and widespread reports of an inadequate number of tests and inconsistent testing access.
Gates said a variety of methods should be considered to increase the availability and rapidity of COVID-19 testing in the U.S., including self-swab polymerase chain reaction, or PCR tests, which patients can administer themselves from home and send to a lab for results. The Gates Foundation recently conducted a study of this testing with health care partners in Washington state, and found it was just as effective as a COVID-19 test administered by a clinician. Gates said these tests eliminate the need for personal protective equipment for those doing the testing, and better ensure the safety of health care workers.
Even so, said Gates, the U.S. doesn’t “have a criteria to prioritize who should get tested, so even in some places, health care workers don’t get very quick results back.” He suggested needs for testing should get sorted out “with a clear indication of what the priorities are,” and added that this could be done through a digital system for patients to enter their symptoms.
“In parallel, we have to go as fast as we can on therapeutics, and as fast as we can on a vaccine” to address COVID-19, Gates said. He estimated that some therapeutic treatments for the virus could be available in the next 3-6 months.
A vaccine will likely take longer — by some estimates, there may not be one available until the fall of 2021. Gates said that broad vaccination for COVID-19 will need to become available “before you can be completely safe.” Until then, there’s a risk that communities could rebound unless they continue to practice strict social distancing and quarantines to see case numbers level off.
What “normal” will look like: When asked about what a return to “normal” will look like post-pandemic, Gates said Americans should look at how other countries that are farther along with the spread of COVID-19 are currently living.
“We need to learn from all the countries” whose policies seem to be working to prevent a rebound of COVID-19, said Gates. He mentioned China, which has started to send people back to work, but has urged people to wear masks, continued to take citizens’ temperatures and refrained from resuming large sporting events. Other countries, like Sweden, have been less strict with their lockdown policies, but have also closely monitored the spread of the virus.
Gates said he doesn’t think large gatherings will be able to resume until widespread vaccination has taken place, as the risks would outweigh the benefits of such events. When asked about what would constitute a large gathering, he responded, “We’ll have to figure out how to draw that threshold. We may understand age-specific risk at that point,” so having 30 young, healthy people in a classroom, for example, could potentially be fine.
Gates guessed that we may have a better idea of what the new post-coronavirus normal will look like a month from now.
How the economic downturn will affect the global psyche: The Wall Street firm Evercore is predicting a 50 percent drop in GDP this quarter and an unemployment rate of 20 percent due to the coronavirus.
Gates said that shutting down most businesses and activity for three months in order to slow the spread of the virus was the best option from both a health and economic point of view. But he said that challenges will persist as cities and states start to re-open: “people’s psyche in terms of their wealth and their willingness to go out and do things has been deeply affected.” He added that even if the supply side of the economy starts functioning as it was before, there will be an issue restoring demand, as people will be less inclined to make investments in things like homes or travel.
Why the developing world may be hardest hit by the virus: Thus far, deaths from the coronavirus in developing countries have remained relatively low, as fewer residents of these regions have traveled to parts of the world that have become virus hot zones. But Gates warned that as coronavirus transmissions increase in the developing world, these countries’ health systems will be further taxed and their citizens will struggle to practice social distancing.
“The kind of social distancing rich countries do may not work” in these countries, said Gates. “Sadly, I do think the most deaths will be in those countries, and the most extreme economic pain. They’re not able to borrow 10, 20 percent of the GDP, which many of the rich countries are.”
Gates, whose foundation has done work extensively in Africa, said that as wealthier countries like the U.S. deal with the domestic response to the coronavirus, they should consider what innovative methods could be used to alleviate suffering in developing countries as well.