Bill Gates on vaccine equity, boosters, climate, his foundation and Epstein meetings

With world leaders visiting New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates is calling on the world's richest nations to take what he says are urgent steps needed to end "the crisis phase of this pandemic." Judy Woodruff spoke with Gates about those steps earlier this afternoon in a wide-ranging discussion.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With world leaders visiting New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates is calling on the world's richest nations to take what he says are urgent steps needed to end the crisis phase of this pandemic.

    We spoke about those steps earlier this afternoon in a wide-ranging discussion.

    And we should note, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funder of the "NewsHour."

    Bill Gates, thank you very much for joining us.

    In the statement you put out today, you spoke about that this is a moment of opportunity, a time to look at this pandemic from — almost from a new perspective.

    And yet it's also a somber milestone. You wrote, we are 18 months in. COVID is still on a death march. What gives you hope?

    Bill Gates, Co-Chair, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: Well, the vaccines are a miracle.

    And there's a great story about the scientists who invented those, and how quickly that production has been ramped up. Now, with the volumes increasing, we have a chance to be equitable. We haven't gotten much out to the poorer countries, and yet variants could come out of those countries, and they need to get their economies back on track.

    And so the U.S. stepping back in, instead of quitting the WHO, and not being willing to get involved, now the U.S. stepping up and working with other countries, increasing their donations, this is a very positive moment, to remember that there are these deep inequities in health, and ending the pandemic should be top of the list for helping all countries.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I was struck by how you spoke about that.

    You said there has to be a common commitment to equity to understand that what happens in lower-income countries affects higher-income countries.

    We hear in the United States that we're sending a lot of vaccines around the world, but you're saying not enough is being done?

  • Bill Gates:

    No, the need out there is billions.

    And, so far, we have gotten tens of millions out. And I — now that supply is no longer the limiting factor in most rich countries — I mean, the U.S. hasn't gotten up to the level of any other rich countries, but that's not a supply issue.

    So there is the opportunity for the U.S. and others not only to solve the supply problem, but help these developing countries with the logistics of actually getting out to all of their citizens.

    And so, during 2020, Europe and the Gates Foundation were having lots of conversations about this. There weren't enough vaccines. They mostly went to the rich countries. The U.S. chose not only not to be involved, but to actually quit the WHO.

    Now we see a turnaround in terms of vaccine supply, and the Biden administration wants to help the world, which, of course, will benefit the U.S. as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you also have President Biden saying the United States can both deliver boosters to many Americans at the same time the U.S. provides vaccines around the world.

    But there are public health experts who say that's just not true; you cannot do both.

    Who's right? How do you see this?

  • Bill Gates:

    Well, between now and the end of the year, we are still somewhat supply-constrained. So the ideal would be, if the rich countries made their booster strategies reasonably targeted, that is, people 60 or 65 and older who have medical conditions, that would mean that the diversion in the rich countries would stay quite modest.

    Ideally, the rich countries, if they are going to do widespread boosters, would wait and do those early next year, where a variety of new vaccines will ramp up their production, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, and then the booster programs won't compete with getting doses out to low-income countries.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you're saying it's a mistake to do it now?

  • Bill Gates:

    In a broad way.

    If you want to target people who have immune deficiency or people above a certain age, the numbers aren't that gigantic. And so very targeted booster programs are going to be OK. It's disappointing where you have a few countries doing super broad booster programs, because we still don't have the supply that we'd like to have.

    And so, I agree with WHO. We have to balance these needs for the next four to six months.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And have you told President Biden that?

  • Bill Gates:

    Well, the foundation is in contact with all the key people.

    Obviously, there are some people who the booster is helpful to. The broader evidence for most people is actually still pretty weak. And so I — it was good that they didn't, FDA didn't choose to go for all people over 12.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I just want to ask you something.

    You talked about supply. We need to fix the supply problem, make it more transparent. There needs to be more global cooperation. A lot of people look at this and they think, we thought that was already being done. But you're saying it's not. Can you just explain, in layman's terms, in a nutshell, what needs to be done?

  • Bill Gates:

    Well, the — during the key year, 2020, the U.S. not only didn't get involved. They withdrew from the main health organization that the world has. They withdrew from the WHO.

    And then, when the Congress did allocate money to buy vaccines, the Trump administration said, no, we're going to block that money from being spent. And so, this year, as the Biden administration came in, they unblocked that money. They did want to make sure the U.S. wasn't supply-constrained.

    So, you can argue, should this have been done three or four months ago? But now we see all the rich countries having gotten up to quite high levels. And so, yes, it's a bit late, but the benefits are still there and incredible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the other issues you're working on right now, of course, is climate change.

    It's before the world leaders right now. Countries are being pressed to come up with commitments that they're going to cut their use of carbon energy. And yet I want to ask you about the current situation right here in this country. The president is trying to push legislation that would include a lot of money to address these environmental questions.

    But you have, not just Republicans, but Democrats, like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, saying, no, we need to cut back on efforts to move to cleaner energy.

    How do you see what's going on politically?

  • Bill Gates:

    The infrastructure bill has some really great money to advance green technologies, to fund projects.

    And the reconciliation bill has a lot of key tax credits to drive the demand for green technology. So, if both of those pass, the U.S. will accelerate in a very dramatic way its contribution, not only reducing its emissions, but innovating to drive the price down.

    Senator Manchin has spoken about the overall price tag and the incentives in the electricity generation sector, and how he might want to see those be different. The key thing, the ideal thing is, even if these bills, if they're some modest reductions, that they get passed.

    If we don't get either of these bills, the U.S. will really be absent in driving the cost of green technologies down, which, in terms of creating new industries and the jobs in those industries, would be a huge missed opportunity for both the U.S. and the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And are you sharing your view with members of Congress as they face some of these votes in the weeks to come?

  • Bill Gates:

    Absolutely.

    I have actually got two topics that I have been in lots of discussions with members of Congress on. One is funding work to avoid having another pandemic. What is the research and things we need to do there? And the president's science adviser, Eric Lander, put forward a plan that we worked with them on that's very good there. But it needs to be funded.

    And then these climate issues, which now is the time to get serious about those things and tap into U.S. innovation power.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I also want to ask you, Bill Gates, about the future of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

    You announced earlier this year, from a private — a private announcement, that you and your wife, Melinda, were going to be ending your marriage. But, at the same time, the foundation announced that it was going to use this moment to restructure.

    What is that going to look like? How is the mission going to change? I'm asking because this is the biggest foundation in the world, by far. Your assets are in the tens of billions. People have a lot of interest in what the foundation does.

  • Bill Gates:

    Yes, so the announcement relative to the foundation was, we'd be adding some people at the governance level.

    I'm incredibly proud of the foundation, the work it does on vaccines for malaria, for reproductive health. And the overall priorities of the foundation are not changing.

    You know, we picked up $1.8 billion of grants focused on the pandemic. But that doesn't mean — we're still finishing the polio eradication. So we will have some additional advisers at the board level. But the priorities we set going back all the way to 2000 that Melinda and I believe in, global health and education, that will still be where our work is done.

    So the only shift in strategy has been to add the pandemic, and now use our expertise to help governments fund the tools, so that we don't end up with another pandemic like this one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, mainly the same — the same focus.

    I also want to ask you about something else in the public arena. It was reported at that time that you had a number of meetings with Jeffrey Epstein, who, when you met him 10 years ago, he was convicted of soliciting prostitution from minors.

    What did you know about him when you were meeting with him, as you have said yourself, in the hopes of raising money?

  • Bill Gates:

    You know, I had dinners with him. I regret doing that.

    He had relationships with people he said would give to global health, which is an interest I have. Not nearly enough philanthropy goes in that direction.

    Those meetings were a mistake. They didn't result in what he purported. And I cut them off. That goes back a long time ago now. There's — so there's nothing new on that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was reported that you continued to meet with him over several years, and that — in other words, a number of meetings. What did you do when you found out about his background?

  • Bill Gates:

    Well, I have said I regretted having those dinners. And there's nothing, absolutely nothing new on that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there a lesson for you, for anyone else looking at this?

  • Bill Gates:

    Well, he's dead.

    So, in general, you always have to be careful. And the — I'm very proud of what we have done in philanthropy, be very proud of the work of the foundation. That's what I get up every day and focus on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so for people watching who wonder about the future of the Gates Foundation, what's your message?

  • Bill Gates:

    Well, I'm extremely lucky that, with the help of Melinda and the incredible generosity of Warren Buffett, we're able to take these important causes and bring innovation to bear.

    We were funding mRNA vaccines when it was still viewed as something that would never work. And now that's turned into a source of some of the very best vaccines. We have great hopes to use that technology for an HIV vaccine.

    Our work has reduced childhood death rates quite dramatically over the last 20 years. So, this is my second career. We have hired great people. We have made some progress. The visibility of the inequity here isn't as high as it should be. And maybe one small benefit of the pandemic is, people will realize how weak these health systems are and how diseases like malaria and polio are still out there, and incredible tragedies.

    So, I'm very lucky to be involved in this work. It's gone way better than I expected. This will be the focus for the rest of my life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Bill Gates, we thank you very much for talking with us.

  • Bill Gates:

    Thank you.

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