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Bill Gates’ Post-Divorce P.R. Tour Is Rewriting History of Elite Covid Failures
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Gates has been violently wrong on almost every key issue. Why are we still treating him like a benevolent public health expert?
If there is any lesson to be gleaned from the horrible, and very much ongoing, chapter of human history that is the pandemic, it’s that the “solutions” pursued by the Bill Gateses of the world—protecting pharmaceutical monopolies, and funneling resources into public-private charity models—have utterly failed humanity.
Yet, in a perverse twist, Gates is aggressively presenting himself as an expert on addressing public health crises, doing a public relations blitz for his new book, How to Prevent the Next Pandemic. And he is getting assists from major press outlets, which are producing fawning article after fawning article.
What’s more, Gates was invited to present at the second-ever Global Covid-19 Summit, co-hosted by the United States, Belize, Germany, Indonesia and Senegal, placing him alongside presidents and prime ministers to address pressing questions about how to vaccinate the world and truly end the pandemic. Amazingly, he even used a statement about his “remarks on Covid” at the summit to promote his book.
But it wasn’t just the man himself: Gates-funded organizations also loomed large at the summit, which came just as the United States reached the grim milestone of 1 million Covid deaths, and the United Nations estimated that nearly 15 million people around the world have died either as a direct result of Covid infection, or due to the harm the pandemic has done to public health systems (this estimate is more than two times the official toll). The Center for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation (CEPI) and Gavi, both of which are funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, were among the summit’s presenters.
Gates’ imprint on the summit did not stop there. He is also a major funder of the World Health Organization (WHO), which has helped make him one of the most influential people in the world when it comes to global health policy. (The WHO’s director-general also addressed the summit.)
Gates is just some rich guy, and the only reason he exerts such outsized influence over the global health system, and then gets to write and speak of his “expertise,” is because he is extremely wealthy. He has no degree in public health, has no formal training, he’s not a doctor or an epidemiologist. He’s pontificating about preventing the next pandemic, while the policies he has funded and backed are directly failing this one, a point the South African health activist Tian Johson recently made.
The Column is not going to review Gates’ book, nor recount what he and the organizations he finances said at the summit, though suffice it to say their remarks were stunningly devoid of remorse. Rather, we want to show why, because Gates has so utterly failed the global poor whom he has massive, unaccountable, and undemocratic power over, he should be discredited, and instead of a book tour and invitations to speak alongside the most powerful people in the world, he deserves, at best, a truth and reconciliation commission, so that we can get to the bottom of what went wrong, and reverse course from his policies—quickly.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a major funder and promoter of COVAX, the primary global institution tasked with equitably distributing Covid vaccines. The project is a collaboration between the WHO, CEPI, Gavi and UNICEF. In particular, Gavi and CEPI have been instrumental to the shaping and management of COVAX: According to Jamie Ducharme, writing for Time, the heads of these two organizations came up with the idea for the institution in the first place.
The program was created before vaccines were on the market, and was supposed to ensure their equitable global distribution. The idea was that rich countries would buy at least some of their vaccines via COVAX, which would increase the purchasing power of this bloc, and also function as a backup for wealthy nations, in case they made separate, unilateral investments in a vaccine that ended up flopping. (This was before we knew which vaccines would be effective.) In addition, COVAX was supposed to solicit donations from rich countries, the World Bank, UNICEF, and a spate of companies to make sure that vaccines would then be donated to poor nations.
Gavi, which has been around for more than 20 years, calls itself “a global Vaccine Alliance, bringing together public and private sectors with the shared goal of saving lives and protecting people’s health.” The organization presented COVAX as a panacea, writing in September 2020 that the program “is the only truly global solution to this pandemic because it is the only effort to ensure that people in all corners of the world will get access to Covid-19 vaccines once they are available, regardless of their wealth.”
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, too, directly trumpeted COVAX. In a June 2021 press release, the foundation announced it was donating $50 million for Gavi’s COVAX efforts, on top of the $156 million it had already given. “The world must urgently come together to expand equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, or we risk more deaths and the emergence of new variants that could prolong the pandemic for everyone,” said Mark Suzman, CEO of the foundation.
Yet, the program ended up in unquestionable failure. By the end of September in 2021, companies had distributed almost 2 billion doses to the United States and European Union. In contrast, COVAX had shipped just 314 million, as the watchdog organization Public Citizen noted. Journalists from STAT and the The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in October 2021 that, as of that point, COVAX had “contributed less than 5% of the all vaccines administered globally and recently announced it would miss its 2 billion target for 2021.”
Today, the world is, undeniably, in the grips of vaccine apartheid. In the entire continent of Africa only 21.5% of people have received a single dose. In the United States and Canada, by contrast, this figure is at 79%. Some countries have had so few vaccinations the amount is almost negligible. In Burundi, 0.1% of the population has been fully vaccinated. In Cameroon, 4.7%.
One of the most damning acknowledgements of failure came from Gates himself at the Munich Security Conference in February 2022. "Sadly, the virus itself—particularly the variant called Omicron—is a type of vaccine, creates both B cell and T cell immunity, and it's done a better job of getting out to the world population than we have with vaccines,” he said. This is a stunning admission to shared responsibility for mass death—to a catastrophic failure of policy. At the time, around 2,000 people a day were dying of Covid in the United States alone. That this highly lethal disease was outpacing vaccinations shows what a tragic failure the method of global vaccine distribution was. But Gates seems to think that these failures amount to “experience” that makes him well qualified to weigh in on the next pandemic. Similar to the architects of the Iraq War, racking up bodies has not delegitimized Gates, but, in fact, made him more of an “expert.”
Gavi, for its part, has sought to place the blame for COVAX’s failures largely at the feet of wealthy countries, which ended up prioritizing their own unilateral deals with vaccine manufacturers, and quickly gobbled up the limited global vaccine supply. And indeed, this was a problem, alongside the failure of companies to follow through on contracts with COVAX. But the medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) makes a convincing case that Gavi also deserves a significant share of the blame. “Instead of relying on a legitimate government-led process to develop a global vaccine procurement and equal allocation platform, the critical responsibility for COVAX was taken by Gavi, a private-public global health partnership,” writes MSF. “It is questionable whether Gavi has the broader accountability or oversight needed for a mechanism serving the entire globe.”
If you look at Gavi’s donor list, it’s a who’s who of wealthy (and despotic) governments, corporations, and organizations, from Saudi Arabia to Shell to Google—and, of course, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This is not an organization beholden to any kind of public, democratic process, yet it shaped the premier global institution for ensuring vaccines got into the arms of the world’s people. To mold COVAX, Gavi surrounded itself with people from its own circles: western consultants, wealthy philanthropists, and academics. “Notably absent were the critical perspectives of regional bodies such as the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and any meaningful representation from low- and middle-income countries,” writes MSF.
There were specific missteps that resulted in stunning failure, notably Gavi’s decision to turn to the Serum Institute of India (with which it had a long-standing relationship) as the key supplier of vaccines for poor countries. When India faced a catastrophic Covid outbreak, as MSF notes, the government put a stop to vaccine exports in March 2021, and therefore countries that had counted on these vaccines were left with nothing.
But there’s a deeper dynamic at work. COVAX has served to reinforce the idea that market solutions can address the Covid crisis, and to reify the power of pharmaceutical companies. By holding up COVAX as the best way to distribute global vaccines, powerful players foreclosed on other possible paths, like breaking the stranglehold of the pharmaceutical industry on intellectual property.
At the same time that Gates was funding COVAX, there was another effort underway. In October 2020, India and South Africa proposed that the World Trade Organization suspend key intellectual property rules so that people across the world can get access to cheaper, generic versions of Covid vaccines, treatments, and tests. The basic idea is that intellectual property rules, which pharmaceutical companies played a big role in shaping in the mid-90s in order to protect their profits, should not be a barrier to treating Covid. Human life, not corporate profit, should be prioritized in the context of a devastating and shared pandemic.
The proposal has since garnered support from over 100 countries, with the Global South heavily represented, but it has stalled thanks to opposition from the European Union and inaction from the United States. And now the WTO is considering a bad compromise deal that may do more harm than good, because it imposes geographic restriction (cuts off China and developed countries, for example), does not apply to tests or antivirals, and imposes new obstacles to generics.
Pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna are refusing to share their vaccine recipes, copyrights, and know-how. This means that tremendous capacity to produce vaccines in the Global South is going untapped. In December, researchers from AccessIBSA project and MSF identified 120 facilities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that are strong candidates for producing mRNA vaccines (which are most adaptable to new variants) if pharmaceutical companies would only give them the information they need to do so.
Instead of throwing its weight behind an effort to compel companies to share their intellectual property, so that countries across the world could make their own vaccines, COVAX was rooted firmly in the idea that pharmaceutical monopolies are legitimate. It does not seek to contest the power of companies in any way, but to play the game, to make deals with those companies, and to pool resources in order to increase bargaining power. The COVAX model of vaccine distribution is rooted in charity under a market system, not the principle that poor countries have the right to produce life-saving vaccines themselves.
This approach has opportunity costs: We will never know what could have been possible had the world not turned to this complex and opaque global model of vaccine distribution. We will never know if, under an alternate reality, the world could have developed the momentum to break pharmaceutical monopolies and declare that patents, recipes, and copyrights—developed with the assistance of public funding—belong to the people, not to for-profit companies. What we do know is that the pharmaceutical industry has fought tooth and nail against any comprehensive waiver of intellectual property rules, while it doesn’t seem to mind the COVAX program.
This stealth method of preserving the power of pharmaceutical companies is in Bill Gates’ direct financial interest. He is invested in Microsoft and Apple, both of which rely on intellectual property rules to protect their profits. As Alexander Zaitchik thoroughly detailed last year in The New Republic, it’s also broadly in line with the philosophy that has undergirded his philanthropic work—that market innovation can address the world’s problems. Of course someone of his ilk, for whom the markets made billions, would think this way. Markets produce extremely rich people, who use their giant platforms, propped up by their wealth, to promote market “solutions.” It’s a vicious cycle, and one that has had an astounding human cost during the pandemic.
Following global pressure, and an apparent (but ultimately disappointing) about-face from the Biden administration, the head of the Gates Foundation did say in May, “No barriers should stand in the way of equitable access to vaccines, including intellectual property, which is why we are supportive of a narrow waiver during the pandemic.” But this 11th hour proclamation has not been followed up by concrete action, and has been contradicted by Bill Gates’ own statements. As Luke Savage noted in Jacobin, Gates told the British outlet Sky News in April:
Well, there’s only so many vaccine factories in the world, and people are very serious about the safety of vaccines. And so moving something that had never been done—moving a vaccine from, say, a [Johnson & Johnson] factory into a factory in India—it’s novel. It’s only because of our grants and our expertise that can happen at all. The thing that’s holding things back in this case is not intellectual property. There’s not like some idle vaccine factory, with regulatory approval, that makes magically safe vaccines. You know, you’ve got to do the trials on these things, and every manufacturing process has to be looked at in a very careful way.
This claim, oft repeated by the pharmaceutical industry, is patently false. In addition to the research noted above, the New York Times identified 10 facilities in India, Brazil, Thailand, South Africa, Argentina, and Indonesia that could likely produce mRNA vaccines if the necessary information were shared with them.
But there is something more sinister at work. Bill Gates is presenting himself as the expert, and giving a condescending pat on the head to activists who, he implies, are well-intentioned but don’t understand how things work. There, there, he says, let those of us who know better take the reins. What’s so enraging, so mind-blowing, about this attitude is that the policies Bill Gates has funded have utterly failed, according to every measure. Yet, somehow he speaks with all the confidence in the world. And, outrageously, people listen.
Of course, when you’re a multibillionaire, you have a P.R. machine the size of a mid-sized country. Bill Gates, who failed the world, gets to write the history of this epoch, and brazenly suggests he should get to shape the response to the next crisis. Meanwhile, bodies continue to pile up, and healthcare workers in Burundi, or elderly people in Yemen, or at-risk teens in Haiti await their promised vaccine equity. But Gates presumes to provide a guide to the “next crisis”? Let’s assume for a minute the current one has passed (which it hasn’t) and a new super flu emerges that’s ten times worse, ten times deadlier, ten times more contagious—or 100 times. Will Gates and his Pharma-backed global health regime still hold onto their restrictive, bottlenecking patent enforcement regime? Will they demand we foreclose on even the option of sharing intellectual property with poor countries to expedite vaccine and treatment scaling up? How many deaths will it take for them to rethink their ideological commitment to capital-driven WTO rules enforcement? The answer, one fears, may be limitless.