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Infectious Diseases

Updated 14 April 2020

Coronavirus: How the Gates Foundation is helping fight the pandemic

Philanthropists around the world are hoping their funding will assist in relief efforts and vaccine research – and ultimately help to control the pandemic. Here's how the Gates Foundation is lending its support.

While the world is facing an increasingly scary battle to stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus, it is also bringing governments, hundreds of organisations across sectors, and individuals together to help respond to this outbreak, notes the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website, further stating that: “The outpouring of global solidarity and support sparked by this shared challenge has been phenomenal.”

Everyone around the world is affected by the virus, and philanthropists from different continents have been pledging millions to fight back against the rapid spread. Among them is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose core mission is to “tackle global healthcare and educational disparities”.

In February this year, the Foundation committed $100m in funding to the coronavirus response in an effort to strengthen detection of the virus, isolation and treatment strategies. In addition to this, the funding is also aimed at protecting at-risk populations and developing vaccines for the medical emergency, the Foundation’s press room announced.

“Multilateral organisations, national governments, the private sector and philanthropies must work together to slow the pace of the outbreak, help countries protect their most vulnerable citizens and accelerate the development of the tools to bring this epidemic under control,” said Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman, adding:

“Our hope is that these resources will help catalyse a rapid and effective international response. This response should be guided by science, not fear, and it should build on the steps that the WHO has taken to date.”

The Foundation, wich has earned its reputation as a do-gooder by focusing on several programmes in more than 100 countries across the globe, further revealed that the funding will be directed to multilateral organisations, including WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that national public health authorities in China, as well as other countries that have reported confirmed cases can also count on the Foundation for support.

The ultimate solution is a vaccine

According to the press room, $60 million of the donated amount will be used to “accelerate the discovery, development and testing of vaccines, treatments and diagnostics for 2019-nCoV.”

In an op-ed published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year, Bill Gates described the virus as a 'once-in-a-century pathogen', and expressed the urgency of a vaccine in order to control the pandemic.

“The world also needs to accelerate work on treatments and vaccines for Covid-19,” he wrote, adding: “We need to build a system that can develop safe, effective vaccines and antivirals, get them approved, and deliver billions of doses within a few months after the discovery of a fast-moving pathogen.”  

The virus, which was officially named SARS-CoV-2 by WHO, has infected more nearly 1.5 million people around the world and killed more than 88 000, indicates the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre's Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE). In South Africa, as of 8 April, more than 1 800 cases and 18 deaths have been confirmed.  

‘Governments and industry will need to come to an agreement’

In his op-ed, Gates emphasises the need for governments and industry to work together during this crisis in order to ensure that, when a vaccine becomes available, it should be accessible and affordable to those who are in the greatest need of it.

Gates also drew attention to donor governments assisting low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) prepare for this pandemic, noting that a portion of the Foundation's donated $100m is focused on LMICs.

“By helping African and South Asian countries get ready now, we can save lives and slow the global circulation of the virus,” he wrote.

Since then, up to $20m has been earmarked towards enhancing protections for at-risk populations, both in Africa and South Asia. These include helping public health authorities in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to “strengthen their emergency operations centers, implement effective disease surveillance efforts and improve their capacity to safely isolate and treat confirmed cases,” explains the press room.

Covid-19 Therapeutics Accelerator

Other efforts made by the Foundation include joining forces with Wellcome, an independent global charitable foundation, and financial services company Mastercard to boost the response to the pandemic, CEO of the Foundation, Mark Suzman wrote earlier this year, explaining that this was backed by $125m in new funding, as well as funding that was already earmarked to tackle the crisis. 

According to Suzman, the funding was directed at identifying potential treatments for Covid-19 and accelerating these developments, as well as preparing for the manufacturing of millions of doses that could be used across the globe. The expertise of pharmaceutical companies, Suzman said, “will be critical to this endeavor,” and was named the Covid-19 Therapeutics Accelerator. 

About three weeks after the Covid-19 Therapeutics Accelerator was established, new donors jumped onboard and two trials were already in the pipeline, the first of which involved 2 000 individuals in an eight-week-trial, carried out by the University of Washington School of Medicine, in collaboration with NYU’s School of Medicine, President of the Foundation's Global Health programme, Trevor Mundel discussed in The Optimist. The second study, he said, would be a much longer one that would take two years, and will be done by the University of Oxford.

Providing technical assistance and expertise

In addition to monetary assistance, the Foundation has also been lending their technical support and expertise towards the fight against the Covid-19 virus. Epidemiologist and programme officer at the Foundation (focusing on polio eradication), Dr Erin Stuckey wrote that with the increase in cases of Covid-19 around the world, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has had to adjust how it responds to the pandemic.

The GPEI is a public-private partnership led by national governments and has six partners, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their goal is to eradicate polio worldwide.

“The Covid-19 pandemic response requires an urgent, coordinated effort, and the GPEI has a responsibility to use its resources to protect the most vulnerable people in communities around the world. 

“That means using our expertise and our network to support Covid-19 preparedness and response,” she wrote, further explaining that the GPEI will use the Foundation’s tools, workforce, and laboratory and surveillance network (that they have built for polio eradication) over the next couple of months in order to support countries dealing with Covid-19. However, Stuckey emphasised that polio eradication work would continue during this time.

More than this, in March, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that they would be moving forward with allowing the method of self-administered swabbing of the nostrils for collecting samples for Covid-19 testing. This ultimately meant that less pressure would be placed on healthcare systems to conduct these tests, reduce the risk of infection of healthcare workers, and speed up testing across the US and worldwide. 

Prior to the announcement by the FDA, the Foundation had been providing technical assistance to the US government agencies to support the development of this testing system.

Once the tests were approved, the Foundation lent their expertise to healthcare company, UnitedHealth Group, on the design of the study, which assessed if self-administered collection methods are comparable to the nasopharyngeal swabs conducted by healthcare workers, as well as to inform the regulators and partners on how and when these tests can be used, explained Dr Dan Wattendorf, Director of Innovative Technology Solutions at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in an article for The Optimist.

Testing kits and research: SA

South Africa plans to ramp up coronavirus testing, and is currently using a technique called a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, reported News24, but adds that plans are underway to start implementing a much faster PCR test to diagnose Covid-19 cases, using GeneXpert machines. Once these machines are rolled out, capacity for testing will increase to 30 000 tests per day, said Health Minister Zweli Mkhize during a briefing last week.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will support South Africa with testing kits and research, News24 reported.

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