The COVID-19 pandemic will be defeated in late 2021 or early 2022, with enough people protected by a suitable vaccine to reduce infection rates to a minimal level such that the virus all but disappears.
That's according to Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, speaking to The Economist earlier today.
Gates referenced six drug trials which are currently looking hopeful, explaining that once an effective vaccine is discovered, billions of doses will need to quickly be produced.
"You need billions of doses and we will be able to get those out and get global immunity in 2021 or maybe it will stretch to 2022," said Gates.
He explained that some people will develop immunity through other means.
"Because of infections where people get immunity, and cross-protection from other vaccines, even if only 30 to 40 per cent of people take the new vaccine, that level that will stop the spread. You can imagine that by late 2021 you'd have enough doses that you're almost done, with a little spill over in 2022. The US has dedicated capacity across many manufacturers to produce a vaccine, so we will bring the pandemic to an end."
"Fortunately we don't need over 90 per cent of people to take the vaccine, it's not like measles which is even more infectious. We think 30 to 60 per cent of people taking the vaccine if it's sufficiently effective, will stop the spread. Even if some people hold back, they'll see over time there's no side effects and then they'll take it. We can get herd immunity even if certain parts of the population don't take it."
However, he admitted that he'd had mixed expectations around the ability of the technology industry to play its part in helping societies through the pandemic.
"I never had much expectation that track and trace would really help with contact tracing. For that you need cases at a low level with people volunteering to tell you where they've been. You've had chatbots providing information relating to the disease, and that's played a modest role.
"But technology has really come to the fore in minimising economic damage. For instance e-commerce has scaled up to meet demand, and our desire to watch things like Netflix has improved broadband speeds, meaning we've just about been able to cope with remote working and lots of conference calls.
"If the pandemic had happened five years earlier it would've been more of a disaster. As it is internet speeds have just barely been good enough, and there's lots of innovation in software to make it dramatically better.
"There have been other benefits too in forcing people to consider more flexible working, not commuting, no travelling for work, scaling back office space. And then there's online education, which is huge for the Foundation."
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The Early Days
Discussing the course the pandemic took in its early days, Gates said that Asia had done better than expected.
"Asia overall has done better than you would have expected, given that's where it started. But Europe, the US and South America have had a very tough epidemic. And then there's Africa, it's just getting going there and we don't know how it's going to go, but the weakness of the health system there makes us worry."
Discussing China Gates explained that the "country where it starts has the toughest job because they have no warning at all."
"In December and January in retrospect they could've rung the alarm bell more loudly. After that, in their authoritarian way they did a good job of suppressing the virus. The overall macro effect of what they achieved was kind of amazing.
"Their ability to build hospitals quickly and force compliance with masks was impressive.
The Political Environment
Moving on to discuss the US, Gates admitted that the heavily polarised political environment has had a negative effect.
"The administration got hung up on talking about what a great job they did, they wanted the report card results quickly instead of being clear about what they did and didn't know. I'm sure we'll look back and see that a lot could have been done better.
"We didn't get trusted leaders being clear on guidance like wearing masks, and we're optimised in the US for individual freedom."
When asked whether a Joe Biden administration could be more likely to convince people to wear masks, Gates was doubtful.
"I don't know that changing administrations will get more people to wear masks. Will a leader who wears masks, will that convince opposition members to wear masks, or will they see not wearing one as a sign of protest? I don't see a breakthrough there."
However, Gates did give the US praise for the level of funding it's putting towards finding a vaccine.
"Eighty per cent of the funding has come from the US so they get the highest score there. The rest of the world hasn't put as much towards R&D as I expected. We also haven't yet funded the purchase of the vaccine for the developing world and I'm in discussion with world leaders to work out how we can get that to happen.
"To bring epidemic to an end we do need a vaccine. The vaccine companies and FDA will hopefully get us there. I don't know that changing administrations will get more people to wear masks. Will a leader who wears masks, will that convince opposition members to wear masks, or will they see that as a sign of protest. Compliance on masks in the US, I don't see a breakthrough there.
"There are six vaccines furthest along which will be in phase three trials by the end of September that represent really top notch vaccine companies. Between those six I think several of them will be successful with around an 80 to 90 per cent success rate in blocking transmission. I think we have enough trials going on to be successful, but we do need to finance these trials to get them out globally, because that's the only way this epidemic ends. We all need to spend billions of dollars to get the vaccine out to stop the trillions of dollars of damage it's doing.
"All countries but the US need to think about why they're not contributing more funding. The UK did better over time, but thank goodness that with all its imperfections the US is funding it."
COVID-19 and climate change
Finally, Gates was asked if he saw parallels with climate change.
"Climate change is similar in that you trust governments to see things far ahead that will be very bad and to take steps to avoid this awful outcome. I'm hopeful that this reminds people you have to prepare in advance. Climate change isn't uncertain, it is coming. It's very bad and over time it gets worse.
"We have to stop emissions very quickly to not get to extreme levels. We need to make those investments. Again it's about innovation. That continues, whether on global health tools or on climate, we need to get behind the policies that increase innovation."
Bill Gates was talking to Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor in chief of The Economist
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