The CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is disappointed that the United States isn’t on the same page with other nations when it comes to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, but he says it’s still possible to present a united front in dealing with what he calls “the ultimate global crisis.”
Mark Suzman, who stepped into the foundation’s top executive role in February just as the pandemic was ramping up, points to a high-profile conference held this week as an example. Leaders and luminaries from Europe, Canada, Japan, Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world pledged $8 billion to help the World Health Organization fight COVID-19.
“Unfortunately, the United States did not participate in that event,” Suzman said today during a live virtual event for GeekWire members. “But the United States is putting a lot of resources, obviously, into the COVID vaccine. Our hope is, at a minimum, can we make these investments complementary to each other, so you don’t have any duplicative races that are wasting resources.”
It’d be ideal to have a well-coordinated multilateral effort to contain the virus, Suzman said.
The international response to the coronavirus pandemic could become an increasingly sharp political issue in the months to come. President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has signaled its intent to blame China and the World Health Organization for letting the virus spread.
Previously: Gates Foundation’s CEO worries about pandemic politics
During today’s talk, Suzman didn’t touch on the domestic politics of the pandemic. Instead, he emphasized the Gates Foundation’s partnership with U.S. officials over the course of a quarter-century.
“For the lifetime of the Gates Foundation, the United States government has, without question, been our strongest partner, whether it’s about HIV-AIDS or malaria.”
But the coronavirus pandemic is challenging the global health community, and the Gates Foundation, like nothing else. “This truly is the first global crisis of nearly all our lifetimes,” Suzman said. “It’s affecting every country, and pretty well every person in the world.”
That’s why the foundation has had to put many of its long-running projects on hold and devote more than $300 million to COVID-19 projects. It’s also why Suzman hopes that the U.S. and China can mend their differences.
“The kind of polarization we’re seeing much more broadly, geopolitically, between the U.S. and China and elsewhere could be allayed over time by joint health efforts, rather than accentuating the divide,” he said.
Disinformation campaigns — some of which have been directed at the Gates Foundation — are making the divides even sharper. One conspiracy-theory video has been receiving millions of views on Facebook and YouTube, even as social-media channels struggle to take it down due to dangerous disinformation.
“Obviously that is not a new challenge, distinct to COVID,” Suzman said. “Even in the Seattle area, we’ve seen significant challenges to vaccination in recent years, and it led to a well-publicized measles outbreak because certain vaccination thresholds dropped below the so-called herd immunity [level]. That itself was a good reminder. When you get complaints and you forget about the impact of these diseases, you forget how powerful it is to have a vaccine.”
Suzman said the Gates Foundation’s strategy is to highlight the scientific data supporting vaccination, and the foundation’s own financial transparency, but he acknowledged that strategy by itself might not be enough to turn back the conspiracy theories.
“It’s a constant battle,” he said, adding that it’s important for third-party groups, including journalists, to “keep doing the investigations and coming out and debunking falsehoods when they are clearly falsehoods.”
Among other highlights:
- When asked to project a timetable for reopening businesses, Suzman noted that the Gates Foundation’s internal plan currently calls for staff members to be working from home until June 30 at the earliest. “It’s mostly white-collar workers who are able to work remotely,” he said. “Even if we could go back into the office early, we probably shouldn’t be. You should be prioritizing sectors of the economy that don’t have the ability to do that kind of work.”
- Suzman repeated the views of his boss, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, about the importance of establishing a robust virus testing and developing multiple vaccines. Vaccines could be available in nine to 12 months “if we’re really lucky,” or it could take as long as two to three years “if we’re unlucky,” Suzman said. Treatments and preventatives would help fill the gap, and the foundation is contributing to the COVID-19 Therapeutic Accelerator to support the development of such treatments.
- The coronavirus pandemic is affecting virtually all of the Gates Foundation’s programs, Suzman said — including the supply chain for chemicals that must be shipped to East Africa to fight off a “genuine plague of locusts”; polio vaccination efforts that have been put on hold because they run counter to social distancing requirements; and online learning projects that have seen as much as a 30 percent drop-off in course completion, due to the difficulties that disadvantaged communities have in getting access to networks when schools are closed.
- One attendee asked Suzman about the books that could be seen in the background of his home study during the videoconference. The South African native responded with two recommendations for shelter-at-home reading: “The Snowball,” a biography of billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett; and “Mandela,” a biography of South African leader Nelson Mandela. Suzman said Mandela’s life provides lessons for dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. “What Mandela really stood for was bringing people from very different points of view together,” he said.
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