The UK, Canada, and America are all embarking on their largest ever vaccination programmes just a year after the first case of COVID-19 was reported to the WHO. Developing a vaccine normally takes over a decade, and the finished product has just a six percent chance of making it to the market, according to a study by Erasmus University. The impressive speed at which the leading COVID vaccines have been developed can be attributed at least in part to the sheer number of vaccine studies taking place – more than 90 vaccines were in development as early as April 2020, according to the journal Nature – as well as to the significant amount of existing research on other viruses in the same family as SARS-CoV-2. But credit must equally be given to the philanthropists who have collectively contributed billions of dollars to the development and distribution of the various vaccines.
Foremost amongst them are Bill and Melinda Gates, who have pledged over $400 million to the global response to COVID-19. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested heavily in many of the leading vaccines, including the Pfizer-BioNTech jab which is already being rolled out across North America and in the UK.
Another philanthropist who has committed funds to the pharmaceutical effort is Jack Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce and tech giant Alibaba. He has given more than $14 million towards coronavirus research, and also sent millions of test kits and surgical masks to the US and Europe as the virus first began to spread.
Hailing from two countries typically seen as diametrically opposed to one another, Jack Ma and the Gateses illustrate philanthropy’s greatest strength – its ability to unite disparate groups of people behind a common cause. That strength is of particular use when it comes to fighting this pandemic – from governments sharing data like genomic sequencing to pharmaceuticals companies collaborating on research and trials, the coronavirus has demanded a truly global response.
Donors can also assume a role independent of politics and profit and offer a more detached perspective than other parties, motivated above all by the objective of combatting the pandemic. They can invest with confidence in longer-term research which might not bring immediate results or profits but is nonetheless indispensable when it comes to virology. This also allows philanthropists to do what businesses can’t: waste hundreds of millions of dollars on risky bets and projects which may not even come to fruition. Though it may seem counterintuitive, this approach is necessary when the alternative is to invest on a more informed trial-and-error basis but lose precious days in the process – days in which the virus continues to ravage the world. This was the logic informing Bill and Melinda Gates’ decision to fund the construction of factories for the seven ‘most promising’ vaccines as early as April 2020, knowing that few of them, if any, would end up being deployed. Talking at a Fierce Pharma conference about this deliberate choice of losing a few billion dollars on vaccines that may not even make it through to trials, Bill Gates said that, considering the situation the world is in, ‘a few billion dollars… is worth it.’
Philanthropists will continue to play a crucial role in the fight against COVID-19, even now that several vaccines have been developed and tested. The challenges of distribution of the vaccines to all populations – not just the wealthy ones – and of convincing people to take the vaccines loom on the horizon. Here, too, celebrated philanthropists are likely to play a disproportionate role due in part to their large platforms and their star status. By endorsing non-profit pricing in the developing world and the sharing of technology between manufacturers in different countries, prominent figures can help to establish a precedent of collaborative and ethical distribution by drug makers and governments, acting a bit like high-powered lobbyists. This is no doubt among the most pressing concerns for philanthropists engaged in the coronavirus response, as the current plan for a global vaccine deal would only give poor countries enough doses to inoculate twenty percent of their populations by the end of next year, according to the New York Times.
It is not yet clear what the next big challenge for global health philanthropy will be: perhaps it will be promoting vaccine-related education, or maybe a new disease will come to the fore, demanding still more grants, collaboration, and patience. But whatever the case, philanthropists have shown themselves to be a significant shot in the arm for the global effort to tackle our most pressing problems.