Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates just penned an article in the New England Journal of Medicine with a shopping list of urgent actions that world leaders must immediately take in response to the global coronavirus outbreak.
He called coronavirus a potential “once-in-a-century pathogen” — and explored the litany of challenges faced by the world as it teeters on the brink of a pandemic.
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that vary in severity from the common cold to fatal respiratory diseases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The outbreak right now is from a specific infectious strain called COVID-19.
Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) reports that it mimics symptoms you might find with the flu: coughing, a high temperature, and shortness of breath.
It’s infected 90,000 people globally so far, killing more than 3,000 — and it's sparking specific concern in countries that don't yet have the health infrastructure to properly limit further outbreaks.
COVID-19 could be a once-in-a-century pandemic, but the good news is that there are steps we can take now to slow its impact and help us respond more effectively when the next epidemic arrives. #COVID19https://t.co/7alFsXL27h— Bill Gates (@BillGates) February 28, 2020
Bill and Melinda Gates have already pledged $100 million to tackle the global outbreak and support the people living in extreme poverty who could be disproportionately affected.
And now Gates has used his article to set out what he views as the most important next steps for leaders in responding to the crisis.
Here are a few of the key points.
1. Rich countries must support poorer countries.
The world’s poorest countries may very well be in the most danger.
It comes down to health systems: if the infrastructure is already stretched, Gates wrote, then it will likely be overwhelmed easily by any outbreak. He argues that rich countries should support countries in Africa and south Asia right away to slow the global circulation of the virus.
“Poorer countries have little political or economic leverage, given wealthier countries’ natural desire to put their own people first,” Gates said.
Coronavirus “has started behaving a lot like the once-in-a-century pathogen we’ve been worried about.“ - Bill Gates— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) March 2, 2020
2. Vaccine trials must be accelerated.
Before most people had heard of coronavirus, the world’s scientists had already got to work in limiting its spread.
Within two weeks of the first outbreak in China and before it had even been named, scientists had sequenced the genome. There’s now eight vaccines in development with trials set for as early as June. But Gates has insisted that the scientific community needs to go even faster.
He wrote that new screening techniques must be applied immediately to find antivirals — meaning medication that can stop coronavirus multiplying — to trial at scale “within weeks.”
3. Healthcare systems must be strengthened.
Gates called on world leaders to address both the short and long term challenges presented by coronavirus and other future global epidemics.
Big picture, that means supporting low-income countries to build robust health systems capable of defending people against outbreaks.
This is an immense challenge, considering, for example, that over 99% of doctors surveyed in Britain believe the NHS — one of the most advanced health systems in the world — is not yet prepared for the high demand a widespread outbreak would cause.
“When you build a health clinic, you’re also creating part of the infrastructure for fighting epidemics,” he wrote.
Coronavirus: just eight out of 1,600 doctors in poll say NHS is ready https://t.co/ukIfXYi74i— The Guardian (@guardian) March 2, 2020
4. International diplomacy is crucial.
While the hard work of developing a vaccine goes on, another question looms: what’s the quickest way countries will be able to get vaccines across borders?
Gates argues that the best way to achieve a consensus is by using pre-existing global forums like the World Health Organization R&D Blueprint — essentially, so everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet from the start of the research process to delivery of the vaccines.
“The goal of this work should be to get conclusive clinical trial results and regulatory approval in three months or less — without compromising patients’ safety,” he wrote.
5. Funding is needed immediately.
Just last week, global stock markets took a $5 trillion hit as concerns about the virus escalated — the largest financial wipeout since the 2008 financial crash. But unless funding to combat coronavirus is stumped up right away, the cost will be far, far higher.
Billions of dollars are required urgently to accelerate vaccine development and rollout. That must come from governments first to encourage the private sector to invest too, Gates said. But it’s also vital that such funding eventually targets the hardest to reach places to get to the most vulnerable people.
“During a pandemic, vaccines and antivirals can’t simply be sold to the highest bidder,” Gates wrote. “They should be available and affordable for people who are at the heart of the outbreak and in greatest need.”
“Not only is such distribution the right thing to do, it’s also the right strategy for short-circuiting transmission and preventing future pandemics,” he added.
You can see all of Global Citizen's COVID-19 coverage here.
- Coronavirus: 5 Things You Can Do Right Now to Help Fight COVID-19
- 8 Reliable Resources for Information About Coronavirus
- Bill Gates Did a Reddit AMA on Coronavirus. Here's What We Learned.
Disclosure: Bill Gates is the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a funding partner of Global Citizen.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated to include a disclosure that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen. We regret the oversight.