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Bill Gates: Coronavirus vaccine might become part of routine newborn immunization

Published May 1st, 2020 6:04PM EDT
Coronavirus Vaccine
Image: Pete Marovich/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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  • Bill Gates explained in a new blog post that eight to 10 vaccine candidates out of the more than 115 proposed drugs show promise.
  • He said that once the “perfect” vaccine has been developed, a drug that would have high efficacy at preventing the COVID-19 disease, it might become part of the routine newborn immunization schedule.
  • Gates also explained that the real challenge is making at least seven billion doses and then deploying them as quickly as possible.
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Bill Gates is one of the personalities that stands out during the novel coronavirus pandemic. First of all, the Microsoft co-founder warned the world this sort of thing could happen five years ago, in a TED Talk that went viral once the dangers of COVID-19 became clear. Second, Gates has been working with authorities on the pandemic, as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has some experience in dealing with infectious diseases.

Unsurprisingly, the Gates Foundation has been funding some COVID-19 efforts, with the former Microsoft exec saying he’s willing to risk billions on developing vaccines and logistics to potentially save trillions of dollars. In a new blog post on the matter of COVID-19 vaccines, Gates explained the current progress, saying that he believes there are eight to ten promising candidates. Once the perfect vaccine is out, Gates said, it might become part of the “routine newborn immunization schedule.”

Gates explained in a detailed blog post that there are no less than 115 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in the works, according to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. “I think that eight to ten of those look particularly promising,” the exec said, without revealing what they are. “Our foundation is going to keep an eye on all the others to see if we missed any that have some positive characteristics, though.”

In previous remarks, Gates said the foundation will help develop seven of them, including the factories and supply chain needed for mass-production. These projects will run concurrently, even if only one or two vaccines end up being chosen for mass inoculation. Gates stressed in his blog post that vaccines have to be safe and effective, even if they’re being fast-tracked to be ready anywhere from nine months to two years from now. He explained three of the various vaccine technologies that are used to develop a COVID-19 drug.

Some researchers are working on inactivated and live vaccines. “Inactivated and live vaccines are what we consider “traditional” approaches,” Gates wrote. “There are a number of COVID-19 vaccine candidates of both types, and for good reason: they’re well-established. We know how to test and manufacture them.”

Manufacturing them for scale, which means seven billion to 14 billion doses, depending on how effective they are, might be a problem, and that’s because most of the material is biological, and needs to be grown.

Gates said he’s more excited for new vaccine techniques that use DNA or RNA material to generate a response:

Here’s how an RNA vaccine works: rather than injecting a pathogen’s antigen into your body, you instead give the body the genetic code needed to produce that antigen itself. When the antigens appear on the outside of your cells, your immune system attacks them—and learns how to defeat future intruders in the process. You essentially turn your body into its own vaccine manufacturing unit.

Gates says the foundation has been working on RNA vaccines for nearly a decade for other diseases, including malaria. The first candidate to start human trials was Moderna’s mRNA vaccine. Earlier this week, we learned that German company BioNTech partnered with Pfizer on a different mRNA trial. Previous reports also detailed one of the DNA-based vaccines that the Gates Foundation is backing, the one made by Inovio.

Gates explained that manufacturing RNA vaccines might be a lot easier. But deploying them could be challenging because they have to be stored at -80C (-112F), compared to just 4C (39F) for more traditional vaccines.

Gates explained that the first vaccines don’t have to be perfect. An efficacy rate of 60% would be enough to lead to herd immunity, and then researchers could develop a better vaccine, which would have even higher efficacy. That’s the kind of vaccine that could be given to babies in the future. Older people, meanwhile, might need higher doses to be protected, Gates said.

He also explained that developing a vaccine and getting it approved is only part of the process. The entire world will need to be vaccinated, which is a daunting task. Creating seven billion doses will be challenging, as will deciding who gets it first once healthcare workers are inoculated:

I think that low-income countries should be some of the first to receive it, because people will be at a much higher risk of dying in those places. COVID-19 will spread much quicker in poor countries because measures like physical distancing are harder to enact. More people have poor underlying health that makes them more vulnerable to complications, and weak health systems will make it harder for them to receive the care they need. Getting the vaccine out in low-income countries could save millions of lives.

Having the entire population of the world inoculated is easier said than done, and some people might be waiting for the vaccine for years. He also reiterated that the Gates Foundation is working on the supply chain for several vaccine types, which will cost billions of dollars. He made it clear that not all of the money will come from the foundation, however:

Governments need to quickly find a mechanism for making the funding for this available. Our foundation is currently working with CEPI, the WHO, and governments to figure out the financing.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.