There’s a worldwide race to develop and test a workable coronavirus vaccine. And Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates hopes an area you might not expect — the never-ending stimulus negotiations Washington, DC — will be key in helping in the effort.
In a conversation with Andy Serwer for Yahoo Finance’s All Markets Summit this week, Gates said “the stimulus bill is the best opportunity” to get funding approved. The billions requested — he notes — could represent “less than 1% of the [overall] stimulus bill.”
Gates has been trying to secure those billions for a group called Gavi. That organization and a similar organization called the Global Fund “have spent two decades becoming experts in the task of financing vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics,” Gates recently wrote.
The Microsoft co-founder’s efforts have gained momentum even as the Trump administration had shied away from a leadership position in other areas of the global response to COVID-19.
While gridlock in Washington has recently stalled stimulus talks, both parties have been responsive to greater U.S. involvement in funding a coronavirus vaccine.
The Republican stimulus proposal from July — known as the HEALS act — included $3 billion “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, which shall be made available for a United States contribution to The GAVI Alliance.” Funding for Gavi was not directly included in the Democrats’ proposal — known as the CARES Act — though House Democrats have passed legislation to create a Coordinator for Global Health Security.
Gates notes that both Republicans and Democrats are now on the record for helping “and so we're hopeful when there is a stimulus bill, which of course is not totally clear, that it will include this money.”
With the U.S. focused on a presidential election and Congress largely gridlocked, “the people in the Congress who support these things have decided that [the stimulus bill] is the most likely way for something to get done,” Gates said.
A push for the money ‘for our own self-interest’
While Gates is best known for his past role at Microsoft, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has long been a central player in the world's public health debates and response from diseases like HIV to H1N1 and now COVID-19. The Gates foundation itself has currently pledged over $350 million to the global coronavirus response.
In February, the Trump administration had promised to commit $1.16 billion to Gavi over fiscal years 2020-2023. Estimates of the total cost to manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine to the 2 billion poorest people in the world have ranged somewhere between $12 billion and $16 billion.
Gavi gathered in June and raised $8.8 billion from a range of countries to help vaccinate the world’s poor. While President Donald Trump did not announce any increased U.S. contribution, he sent a message of support that signaled a dialogue between the administration and this public health effort. That global cooperation is notable as Trump administration announced it was cutting ties to the World Health Organization earlier this year.
Over the years, the U.S. has contributed 11.9% of Gavi’s operating budget — $1.09 billion between 2016 and 2019. Without a big new round of funding to match the upsurge of worldwide commitments this year, America’s share of the alliance is set to fall.
Since the virus began to spread earlier this year, the Trump administration has largely focused its efforts on reserving vaccines for Americans, with a recent timeline from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlining a mass vaccination of the American population next spring.
However, Gates wants to show U.S. policymakers that what happens with the virus in poorer countries impacts health in the U.S. The U.S. needs to participate “for our own self-interest, for humanitarian reasons, for strategic reasons,” Gates said.
Gates recently wrote about the consequences of unequal vaccine distribution, noting that people will die needlessly if large swaths of the world are shut out of a vaccine for many months. In addition, Gates say, the unchecked spread of the virus will continue to threaten rich countries.
“As long as this disease exists anywhere in the world,” Gates said, “the chance of reinfection will always be there.”
Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.