Sat. Sep 24th, 2022
The shareholder revolt comes in the shadow of recent cases and the revelation that co-founder Bill Gates was in a relationship with an employee of the company.
enlarge The shareholder revolt comes in the shadow of recent cases and the revelation that co-founder Bill Gates was in a relationship with an employee of the company.

Jeff Pachoud | Getty Images

For 20 years, Bill Gates has discharged the roles that have made him rich and famous — CEO, chief software architect and chairman of Microsoft — devoting his brainpower and passion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, forgoing profit calls and antitrust hearings for the metrics of disease eradication and carbon reduction. This year, after he left the board of Microsoft, you would have thought he would have enjoyed turning the spotlight on the four CEOs of major tech companies called to Congress.

But as with many of us, 2020 had other plans for Gates. An early Cassandra who warned of our lack of preparedness for a global pandemic, he became one of the most credible figures as his foundation made massive investments in vaccines, treatments and testing. He also became a target of the scourge of disinformation looming in the country as Logorrheic critics accused him of planning to inject microchips into vaccine recipients. (Fact check: false. In case you were wondering.)

My first interview with Gates was in 1983 and I’ve long lost count of how many times I’ve spoken to him since. He yelled at me (more in previous years) and made me laugh (more in recent years). But I’ve never looked forward to speaking to him more than in our year of Covid. Wednesday we connected, remotely of course. In discussing our country’s failed responses, his problems with his friend Mark Zuckerberg’s social networks, and the innovations that could help us out of this mess, Gates did not disappoint. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WIRED: You have been warning us of a global pandemic for years. Now that it has happened as you predicted, are you disappointed with the United States’ performance?

Bill Gates: Yes. There are three time periods, all of which have disappointments. It is 2015 until this particular pandemic hit. If we had built the diagnostic, therapeutic and vaccine platforms, and if we had done the simulations to understand what the key steps were, we would be dramatically better off. Then there’s the period of the first few months of the pandemic, when the US made it even harder for the commercial testing companies to get their tests approved, the CDC had this very low volume test that didn’t work initially, and they let people do not test. The travel ban came too late, and it was too narrow to do anything more. Then, after the first few months, we finally found out about masks, and that leadership is important.

So you’re disappointed, but are you? surprised

I’m amazed at the situation in the US because the brightest people in the world in epidemiology are at the CDC. I expected them to do better. You would expect the CDC to be the most visible, not the White House or even Anthony Fauci. But they have not been the face of the epidemic. They are trained to communicate and not try to panic people, but get people to take things seriously. They are basically muzzled from the start. We called the CDC, but they told us to speak to the White House several times. Now they say, “Look, we’re doing a good job of testing, we don’t want to talk to you.” Even the simplest things, which would vastly improve this system, they say would admit that there is an imperfection and therefore they are not interested.

Do you think it’s the agencies that have fallen or just the leadership at the top, the White House?

We can do the autopsy at some point. We still have a pandemic and we need to focus on that. The White House did not allow the CDC to do its job after March. There was a window where they were engaged, but the White House wouldn’t allow it. So the difference between the US and other countries isn’t that first period, it’s the subsequent period when the messages – the opening up, the leadership on masks, those things – are not the CDC’s fault. They said not to open back; they said leadership should be a model for using face masks. I think they’ve done a good job since April, but we haven’t had the benefit of it.

Are you optimistic on this point?

Yes. You have to admit, there’s been trillions of dollars in economic damage and a lot of debt, but the innovation pipeline in scaling up diagnostics, new therapies and vaccines is actually quite impressive. And that makes me feel like, for the rich world, we should be able to largely end this by the end of 2021, and for the world in general by the end of 2022. It’s just because of the scale of the innovation that’s taking place. If we do this now, we will have lost many years to malaria and polio and HIV and the indebtedness of countries of all sizes and instability. It will be years before you even get back to where you were at the start of 2020. It’s not World War I or World War II, but it’s on that order of magnitude as a negative shock to the system.

Back in March, it was unthinkable that you would give us that timeline and say it’s great.

Well, thanks to innovation, you don’t have to think about an even sadder statement, which is that this thing will be raging for five years until natural immunity is our only hope.

Let’s talk about vaccines your foundation invests in. Is there anything that takes shape relatively quickly and can be safe and effective?

Before the epidemic broke out, we saw tremendous potential in the RNA vaccines – Modernna, Pfizer/BioNTech and CureVac. Right now, because of the way you make them and the difficulty in scaling them up, they’re more likely to help – if they’re useful – in the rich countries. They will not be the cheap, scalable solution for the whole world. There you would look more at AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson. This disease, both from the animal data and from the phase 1 data, appears to be highly vaccinable. There are still questions. It will take a while before we know the duration [of protection], and efficacy in the elderly, although we think that will be quite good. Are there side effects, which you really have to get out of those big phase 3 groups and even after that through a lot of monitoring to see if there are any autoimmune diseases or conditions that the vaccine could interact with in a harmful way.

Are you concerned that in our rush to get a vaccine we’re going to approve something that isn’t safe and effective?

Yes. In China and Russia they are making full strides. I bet there will be some vaccines that will reach a lot of patients without the full regulatory review somewhere in the world. We’ll probably need three or four months, come what may, of phase 3 data just to look for side effects. To their credit, the FDA has, to their credit, insisted on requiring proof of efficacy. So far they have behaved very professionally despite the political pressure. Can be crowded but people say no, make sure you don’t. The irony is that this is a president who is a vaccine skeptic. Every meeting I have with him, he says, “Hey, I don’t know anything about vaccines, and you have to meet this guy Robert Kennedy Jr. who hates vaccines and spreads crazy stuff about them.”

Did Kennedy Jr. it’s not about you using vaccines to implant chips in people?

Yes, you are right. Him, Roger Stone, Laura Ingraham. They do it this way: “I’ve heard a lot of people say X, Y, Z.” That’s kind of Trumpish plausible deniability. Anyway, there was a meeting where Francis Collins, Tony Fauci and I had to… [attend], and they had no data on anything. If we were to say, “But wait, that’s not real data,” they’d say, “Look, Trump told you to sit and listen, so shut up and listen anyway.” So it’s kind of ironic that the president is now trying to get some benefit from a vaccine.

What goes through your mind when you hear misinformation in a meeting, and the President of the United States wants you to shut up?

That was a bit strange. I have not met the president directly since March 2018. I made it clear that I can talk to him about the epidemic at any time. And I’ve talked to Debbie Birx, I’ve talked to Pence, I’ve talked to Mnuchin, Pompeo, especially on the issue: Is the US showing up in terms of providing money to purchase the vaccine for the developing world? There have been many meetings, but we have not been able to get the US to appear. It’s very important to be able to tell the vaccine companies that they have to build additional factories for the billions of doses, that there is money to buy them at the marginal cost. So in this supplemental bill, I’m calling on everyone to get 4 billion through GAVI for vaccines and 4 billion through a global fund for therapies. That’s less than 1 percent of the bill, but in terms of saving lives and getting us back to normal, that less than 1 percent is by far the most important thing if we can get it in there.

By akfire1

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