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What it will take to beat COVID: Some clues from our 2020 Change the World list

September 21, 2020, 9:30 AM UTC

The day before the most recent issue of Fortune magazine went to press, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released its 2020 Goalkeepers Report, the philanthropy’s latest scorecard on the global war on poverty and disease. In a sea of disappointing numbers—and line charts bending the wrong way—one data point stands out as particularly alarming: The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust an additional 37 million people around the world into extreme poverty. In case you’re wondering, the World Bank defines that threshold as living on less than $1.90 a day.

Those looking for a culprit here can blame a spiky virus around 100 nanometers in diameter. Until the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen spread around the world, we had been steadily making progress in the bulk of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. But the pandemic—and the economic devastation it has wrought—has turned the clock back.

What it hasn’t done, though, is stop innovation, or ingenuity, or the catalytic sense of optimism that so many problem-solvers bring to their day jobs. What the pandemic hasn’t done is stop creative, ambitious business leaders from figuring out ways to fix what’s broken, heal the sick, and clean up the planet.

Illustrations by Matt W. Moore

That is the inescapable takeaway from this issue of Fortune; it’s a message found in every story in our sixth annual Change the World package, which highlights companies that are finding ways to do well financially in the course of doing good. On this year’s roster, of course, are a large number of companies that are tackling the biggest health crisis humanity has faced in memory—from those racing to develop a vaccine to those, like Alibaba (No. 2) and Henry Schein (No. 19), that are making sure frontline medical workers are protected. Chipmaker Nvidia (No. 4) is building sophisticated graphics processing units (GPUs) that are helping drug developers pinpoint molecules that might make promising medicines—and software that can spot COVID on a CT scan. Cemex (No. 39) is creating prefab hospitals that can be assembled in just 15 days. And Ushio (No. 40) is designing a new type of ultraviolet lamp that can kill dangerous microbes without harming human skin or eyes.

But these corporate innovators are taking on challenges that go well beyond the pandemic, too—focusing on job creation (see Walmart, No. 9), financial security (PayPal, No. 3), climate change (BlackRock, No. 5), food science (Green Monday, No. 32), and even mine removal (Grupo Energía Bogotá, No. 12).

For me, this list every year offers a jolt of confidence in humanity—a renewed sense that many of society’s most unyielding problems can bend when enough creativity, leverage, and pressure are applied. As much damage as COVID has done to our health and economy this year, I’m counting on world-changing businesses, both on this list and as yet undiscovered, to get us back on track.

A version of this article appears in the October 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “The forces COVID can’t stop.”