Bill Gates has been making a lot of headlines related to the coronavirus pandemic, probably because of the work the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does to fight disease. In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, which was adapted from an article that will be posted on Gates’ own website, Gatesnotes.com, he explained the innovations he believes are needed to reopen the economy.
Bill Gates said the first thing that must be done to fight the coronavirus pandemic is to make testing more widely available. He said before the economy can be reopened, medical personnel should be testing enough people so they can "quickly detect emerging hotspots and intervene early."
One of the biggest problems with the COVID-19 pandemic is that there aren't enough testing kits available to test large numbers of people. Gates said innovation can help solve this problem. He explained that the current tests require healthcare workers to swab patients' nasal cavities, which requires them to change their protective gear before they perform each test.
However, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supported research that found that results from patients who swab themselves are just as accurate as swabs performed by medical personnel. This approach is not only faster but also safer because patients could be swabbing themselves at home instead of potentially exposing other people to COVID-19.
Gates also said another diagnostic test that works like an at-home pregnancy test is in development. People would still swab their noses, but instead of sending it to a lab, they put it in a liquid and pour the liquid on a strip of paper. If the paper changes color, it means COVID-19 is present. He expects this test to be available "in a few months."
Gates also called for one major social change in the testing process. He said standards about who gets tested for COVID-19 are not consistent. Gates believes essential workers, symptomatic people and those who have been in contact with someone who tested positive should be tested. He added that asymptomatic people who aren't in those three groups of people should only be tested if there are enough tests for everyone.
Gates also said changes are needed in the area of contact tracing. Whenever someone tests positive for COVID-19, public-health officials must be able to trace those they've been in contact with so they can determine who else might be infected. He suggested that the U.S. follow what Germany is doing, which means interviewing those who test positive for the virus and then following up with their contacts.
He did not that this isn't a foolproof plan because it assumes patients accurately report their contacts and requires a lot of follow-up in person. However, he believes it would be "an improvement over the sporadic way that contact tracing is being done across the United States now."
The billionaire philanthropist also suggested a better way to do contact tracing involving the widespread use of "digital tools." Some apps remind users where they have been, so if they test positive, they can review their history or share it with anyone who interviews them about where they've been.
Some have suggested allowing phones to detect other phones that are nearby via Bluetooth and emitting sounds that are outside the range of human hearing. Then if someone tests positive, their phone could send a message to the other phones they have been close to, and their owners could get tested for the virus. Gates believes that if most people installed such an app, it would probably help with contact tracing.
Treatments for COVID-19
Gates also noted that there currently aren't any treatments for COVID-19 available, although hydroxychloroquine has received quite a bit of attention. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a clinical trial that will show whether the medication works on COVID-19 by the end of May. However, Gates warned that the benefits of it will likely be "modest at best."
He also said there are "several more-promising candidates" for COVID-19 in development. One involves taking blood from patients who have recovered from the virus, ensuring that it's free of the coronavirus and other infections, and then giving the plasma and its antibodies to those who have COVID-19. He added that "several" well-known companies are working together to see if it will work.
One other possible treatment involves identifying the antibodies that work the best against COVID-19 and then manufacturing them in a lab. If this method does work, it's unclear how many doses could be produced. He explained that it depends on how much antibody material is needed per dose. He said manufacturers could be able to make anywhere between 100,000 of these treatments to "many millions" next year.
Gates added that if people are attending big public events next year, it will be because researchers have discovered an effective treatment that makes everyone feel safe enough to go out again. However, he believes that if a treatment is found, it will likely be good, "but not one that virtually guarantees you'll recover."
As a result, he said it's necessary to work on making a vaccine for COVID-19. He said every month it takes to make a vaccine is another month in which the economy can't get back to normal. He's especially excited about an approach that involves an RNA vaccine, which is the first time to enter human trials.
Unlike a flu shot, which contains parts of the flu to teach the immune system how to fight it, an RNA vaccine provides the genetic code that's needed to produce fragments of the virus on its own. The immune system can then learn how to attack the virus. Gates said RNA vaccines basically turn the body into "its own vaccine manufacturing unit."
He added that there are at least five other approaches that appear promising, but since it's unclear which will work, it's necessary to fund many of them so they can all advance at full speed. Before there is a vaccine, governments will have to develop plans to distribute it. Gates added that countries that provide funding, run trials and are the hardest hit could receive priority. Although he said a global agreement would be best, it's unlikely that countries will be able to agree which should get it first.
Bill Gates believes that like World War II was the defining moment of hits parents' generation, the coronavirus pandemic will be the defining moment of the current era. However, he also noted that there's a big difference between a global war and a pandemic. A pandemic allows all nations to work together on solutions and prepare to prevent and contain the next pandemic.