Bill Gates explains how to beat the coronavirus pandemic

Bill Gates has offered his most comprehensive take yet on the coronavirus pandemic—and it’s strikingly optimistic. The 6,000–word “memo,” as the billionaire philanthropist calls it, which was posted on his GatesNotes blog this morning, lays out in plain-spoken language why the pandemic spread so quickly (and differently) around the world, why we didn’t “overreact” in our response, and what we still need to learn in order to lessen the damage.

Gates is candid about the challenges “the first modern pandemic” will continue to bring. “Every week,” he writes, “you will be reading about new treatment ideas that are being tried out, but most of them will fail.” Nonetheless, he is characteristically upbeat about how the world will get through this ordeal—and that’s through a collective can-do spirit. The word “can,” by my count, appears thirty times in his essay: with verb teams like “can work,” “can accelerate,” “can be scaled up,” and “can save trillions” driving his argument forward from the start.

That spirit, in turn, will inevitably drive optimism—just as it did in the last great war the world endured. “During World War II, an amazing amount of innovation including radar, reliable torpedoes, and code-breaking helped end the war faster,” Gates writes. “This will be the same with the pandemic.” The novel coronavirus has pit “all of humanity against the virus,” he says. “This is like a world war, except in this case, we’re all on the same side.”

While the loss of life and economic damage have been staggering, he writes: “Everyone can work together to learn about the disease and develop tools to fight it. I see global innovation as the key to limiting the damage. This includes innovations in testing, treatments, vaccines, and policies to limit the spread while minimizing the damage to economies and well-being.”

For the 64-year-old Gates, who has spent much of the past quarter-century waging war on infectious diseases in the poorest regions of the planet—and who has spent close to $50 billion of his own money doing so—such optimism isn’t mere rhetoric. It’s fuel. Indeed, that fuel, as I wrote in my profile of Gates last April, has powered efforts that have vastly reduced childhood deaths from malaria, diarrheal disease, tuberculosis, and other age-old scourges and has brought polio, once endemic in 125 countries, to the brink of eradication.

To fight the latest pandemic, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is continuing to find and fund promising scientific efforts to develop treatments for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, as well as create viable vaccines. Already the global effort is sprawling, with more than 100 research groups doing work on each. “We are funding a subset of these but tracking all of them closely,” Gates says. “It is key to look at each project to see not only its chance of working but also the odds that it can be scaled up to help the entire world.”

Some other key takeaways from his memo:

On the exponential rise and decline of coronavirus infection:

“A lot of people will be stunned that in many places we will go from hospitals being overloaded in April to having lots of empty beds in July…As we get into the summer, some locations that maintain behavior change will experience exponential decline. However, as behavior goes back to normal, some locations will stutter along with persistent clusters of infections and some will go back into exponential growth.”

On how blood plasma from survivors may help:

“One potential treatment that doesn’t fit the normal definition of a drug involves collecting blood from patients who have recovered from COVID, making sure it’s free of the coronavirus and other infections, and giving the plasma to people who are sick…A variant of this approach is to take the plasma and concentrate it into a compound called hyperimmune globulin, which is much easier and faster to give a patient than unconcentrated plasma. The foundation is supporting a consortium of most of the leading companies that work in this area to accelerate the evaluation and, if the procedure works, be ready to scale it up.”

On the challenges of vaccines:

“Many of the vaccine approaches will fail because they won’t generate a strong enough immune response to provide protection. Scientists will get a sense of this within three months of testing in humans by looking at the antibody generation. Of particular interest is whether the vaccine will protect older people, whose immune systems don’t respond as well to vaccines.”

Please be sure and read the Gates’ full essay here.

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