Impact Series

Gates Basis CEO on COVID vaccines and the pandemic’s potential silver linings

Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, visits the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Research Site in Masiphumelele on the South Peninsula of Cape Town, South Africa on Feb. 7, 2020. (Gates Foundation Photo)

The head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation says he’s hopeful that a COVID-19 vaccine will be available by the end of this year — if all goes well.

“We can say, with some confidence, this is going to be the fastest vaccine ever developed in human history,” said Mark Suzman, CEO of the Seattle-based foundation.

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There are more than 100 vaccine projects underway, he said, and 11 vaccines are in clinical trials. Historically, the most rapid approval of a vaccine was for mumps and took four years.

To create successful COVID vaccines will require significant funding and regulations that allow for accelerated testing of multiple drugs simultaneously, Suzman said. And once the drugs become available, there will be challenges in producing many doses quickly and distributing them equitably and safely — they could require refrigeration not readily available in parts of Africa or Southeast Asia — to the far corners of the world.

Suzman was speaking as part of an international, live-streamed panel titled “Could Our Response to COVID Help End Poverty?” on Thursday. The event was hosted by GZERO Media, a subsidiary of Eurasia Group, a leading political risk analysis firm.

Other key takeaways from the conversation:

  • The most successful COVID responses came from countries large and small, rich and poor. They are unified in their pursuit of scientifically-based, expert-led responses that united their leaders and avoided politicizing the disease. They include: Germany, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, Canada, Norway, Greece, Vietnam and Argentina.
  • Africa has exceeded expectations in fighting COVID; the continent so far has 300,000 COVID cases and 8,000 deaths (the U.S. has 2.3 million cases and nearly 122,000 deaths). Experts credit the lessons learned from battling Ebola and the fact that COVID struck Africa after hitting other continents, providing better insights. African countries understood “that you needed an all-of-society, a collective-action program” as a response, said panelist Vera Songwe, a UN Under-Secretary-General.
  • The global economic crisis puts poor countries at tremendous risk, and many are calling for different forms of debt relief from financial institutions to help aid in their recovery. COVID is potentially pushing 40-60 million people into extreme poverty.
  • While vaccine development and testing is underway, an equally important strategy is researching effective treatments for COVID-19 infections. That includes the $125 million Therapeutics Accelerator, which is backed by the Gates Foundation, Wellcome and Mastercard.

The panel found some potential silver linings to the pandemic, namely the opportunity for the world to see what can be accomplished when countries collaborate in response to a global threat — in this case by creating treatments and vaccines that help everyone.

“You can create a ‘greatest generation’ that actually thinks of the planet in a holistic way and globalism doesn’t become a dirty word,” said panelist Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. “Instead, it’s about how the planet came together to save itself from this horrible disease. And lord knows we need that lesson given the bigger challenges, the bigger global challenges, that are coming.”

Suzman agreed.

“There’s no doubt we’re in for some short-term pain,” he said. “But if we can learn the right lessons, there’s some real opportunities for some stronger long-term economic cooperation well beyond health into economic cooperation, education, a number of other sectors.”

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