Bill Gates warns of pandemics potentially far worse than Covid-19

Bill Gates has issued a warning of pandemics far worse than Covid-19 as he called on governments to contribute billions of dollars to preparing for the next global outbreak.

The philanthropist said that while the Omicron and Delta variants of coronavirus were some of the most transmissive viruses ever seen, the world could have had to face a pathogen causing a far higher rate of fatalities or severe disease.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Wellcome Trust are giving $300m to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which helped form the Covax programme to deliver vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. CEPI is trying to raise $3.5bn as it aims to cut the time required to develop a new vaccine to just 100 days.

Gates said the world’s priorities were “strange” and that it had fallen to philanthropists and some rich governments to try to address vaccine inequity.

“When we talk about spending billions to save . . . trillions of economic damage and tens of billions of lives, it’s a pretty good insurance policy,” Gates said.

He added that much of the innovation to prepare for a future pandemic could also be useful in tackling existing global health problems such as by creating a vaccine for HIV and better shots for tuberculosis and malaria.

Gates said the two major funders of vaccine development during the Covid-19 pandemic, CEPI and the US government, were “brave” to put money at risk to create broad portfolios of potential shots.

But he admitted that more needed to be done to increase supplies to vaccinate the world.

“It was at-risk money that caused the trials to take place. So there was a huge global benefit. We’re all a lot smarter now. And we need more capacity for the next time,” he said.

Professor Cherry Gagandeep Kang, a CEPI board member and virologist at the Christian Medical College in Vellore in India, said we should expect countries to put their national interest “front and centre”. 

“The rest of the world that cannot afford to have these commitments made upfront needs somebody in our corner. And CEPI is that organisation,” she said.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said it was “critical” that funds came not just from international development budgets but more broadly from across government funding and philanthropy.

He described how CEPI was formed five years ago after the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic. “We were then and we are now living in what I think is an era of more frequent and more complex epidemics and pandemics,” he said.

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