Microsoft founder Bill Gates, a billionaire, said a good and right thing on Saturday. Gates called on leaders to make sure that future covid-19 drugs and vaccines to the people and countries that need them most, and not just to the highest bidders.
Speaking at a virtual covid-19 conference hosted by the International AIDS Society, Gates highlighted a growing concern among international government and public health officials: Once there are drugs and vaccines, who will get them first? According to Gates, it’s important to consider not only who can pay for these treatments, but also who and where they’re needed most.
“If we just let drugs and vaccines go to the highest bidders instead of to the people and the places where they’re most needed, we’ll have a longer, more unjust, deadlier pandemic,” Gates said. “We need leaders to make these hard decisions about distributing based on equity, not just on market-driven factors.”
There is no doubt that Gates’ comments are the good and right thing to say and do. However, it also must be noted that it’s ironic that he’s the one speaking out about this issue, considering Microsoft’s history of using its market power to crush competitors. Nonetheless, apparently using power and money to get ahead is a very bad thing. How convenient.
Gates’ hypocrisy aside, making sure the neediest countries and people have access to future vaccines and drugs does seem like the decent thing to do in the face of a global public health emergency, but it’s unfortunately not clear that this will happen once scientists develop effective treatments.
In late June, for instance, the U.S. bought up almost the entire stock of remdesivir—one of the few drugs known to be effective in treating covid-19—for the next three months. Leaving little for the rest of the world.
“President Trump has struck an amazing deal to ensure Americans have access to the first authorized therapeutic for COVID-19,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said. “To the extent possible, we want to ensure that any American patient who needs remdesivir can get it. The Trump Administration is doing everything in our power to learn more about life-saving therapeutics for covid-19 and secure access to these options for the American people.”
Given the apparent lack of U.S. interest in distributing a future coronavirus vaccine in an equitable way, many global leaders worry that the president will start a global fight for the vaccine. Such a fight would leave poorer countries behind. China, which has a significant number of potential covid-19 vaccines in development, is also a concern.
Although Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that Chinese-developed vaccines would be a “global public good,” a June government white paper said that the vaccine would be a global public product “once it is developed and deployed in China,” per the Los Angeles Times.
The World Health Organization is working on a proposal for a Global Allocation Framework for covid-19 products. A June briefing of the proposal stated that, given the ubiquitous nature of covid-19, all countries should receive an initial allocation as products become available.
“Eventually, prioritization of geography and timing would be based on a risk assessment of countries’ vulnerability and covid-19 threat,” the document said.
In this context, the WHO defined “vulnerability” as the vulnerability of countries’ health systems and population factors. “Threat,” meanwhile, refers to the potential impact of covid-19 on countries.
Bottom line: This is an easy debate. Under no circumstances should economically disadvantaged people and countries should be left with zero access to covid-19 vaccines and treatments, or have to go to the back of the line, just because richer countries have the ability to pay for them. That would be immoral.