Bill Gates. File photo: REUTERS/JASON LEE
Bill Gates. File photo: REUTERS/JASON LEE

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has weighed in on the debate around coronavirus vaccine nationalism, saying part of the solution to securing shots for poorer nations lies in stepping up production.

“The key for the vaccines is getting more approved and getting more factories in production,” he said on a call with African journalists ahead of the release of the annual letter he pens with his wife, Melinda Gates, with whom he co-chairs the philanthropic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

On Tuesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa accused wealthy nations of hoarding vaccines, and called for their release. Addressing delegates at the World Economic Forum (WEF), he said a failure to distribute Covid-19 vaccines equitably would prolong the crisis. The global scramble for vaccines has seen some wealthy nations entering into so many advance market agreements with manufacturers that they could immunise their populations several times over.

The Gates Foundation has provided direct support to vaccine manufacturers to enable them to produce shots developed by other companies. These “second source” agreements have enabled companies such as the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, to partner with the Europe-based AstraZeneca to produce the Covid-19 vaccine it developed with Oxford University. The SII is providing the first 1.5-million doses of Covid-19 vaccines secured by the government, with the first million due to arrive in SA by the end of the week.

“We are hopeful that particularly with some factories in India that the foundation has helped to finance, within the next few months a large number of doses will come out of there and be targeted almost entirely to the developing world. That is the goal of Covax,” said Gates, referring to the global vaccine financing vehicle co-ordinated by the World Health Organisation and the vaccine alliance Gavi.

Gates expressed optimism that vaccines, combined with better tests and treatments, could soon have an effect on the trajectory of the pandemic.

“There is an end in sight. Through great scientific work many vaccines are becoming available. By some time next year we will largely be back to normal,” he said.

In their letter, Bill and Melinda called for equity in the world’s response to the coronavirus.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, we have urged wealthy nations to remember that Covid-19 anywhere is a threat everywhere. Until vaccines reach everyone, new clusters of disease will keep popping up. The cycle of inequality will continue. Everything depends on whether the world comes together to ensure that the life-saving science developed in 2020 saves as many lives as possible in 2021,” wrote Melinda.

They also sounded a warning about the need to prepare for the next pandemic with a global alert system to detect disease outbreaks, saying that while doing so would require tens of billions of dollars a year, it would be money well spent. Covid-19 has cost the world an estimated $28-trillion.

“The world now understands how seriously we should take pandemics. We’re already seeing new pandemic preparedness strategies emerge and I expect to see more in the months and years to come. The world wasn’t ready for the Covid-19 pandemic. I think next time will be different,” wrote Bill.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za

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