In a Tuesday evening conversation with STAT News, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates expressed concerns about the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States, saying he doesn’t see the complex infrastructure “coming together.”
Gates, speaking at the virtual STAT Summit 2020, described a system in which a number of factors need to be considered, such as tracking both doses of the vaccine, safely delivering the vaccine to different locations, and verifying that people fit respective priority groups
“I’m worried about vaccine distribution not going to the right people and not going full speed. You can have vaccine expiration because of the way the cold chain works on these things," Gates said, referring to the need to store a leading vaccine candidate by Pfizer in ultra-cold temperatures. “I can’t predict the set of numbers but wow, it is a dysfunctional set of people at the moment.”
“I’m just not seeing what you would want to see for a well-managed rollout [of a vaccine]. And who’s in charge? Is Scott Atlas now in charge? He’s busy attacking other experts,” Gates said about one of the current White House coronavirus advisers, who has been criticized for circulating misleading information about the virus and discouraging people from following mask guidelines and other public health measures.
Gates said it would be a “fantastic thing” if the most at-risk populations, including elderly people and those with underlying health issues, receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Even if those people are hesitant to receive a vaccine when it first becomes available, “they’ll get more willing over time,” he said.
Ahead of the availability of a vaccine, there is more to be done with expanding testing and antibody treatments for those infected with COVID-19, he said.
“Then you can scale up and cut the death rate or hospitalization rate by catching people early and getting them the antibodies,” he said, describing it as the next best thing until a vaccine is available and more people begin to take it.
When asked if he thinks the federal government’s management of the pandemic has worsened or improved since he criticized the national response to the pandemic in an interview with STAT in September, Gates said he thinks it got worse in some ways, because “the example of executive branch activity was so in the face of how we should behave.”
President Trump, his wife, Melania Trump, and top White House advisers tested positive for COVID-19 in October. The president was hospitalized for COVID-19 for multiple days.
“I really think the CDC was not allowed to do its job,” Gates said, adding that officials with the agency should have been the ones communicating information about the pandemic.
“That got shifted to an executive level that you would not have expected because do those guys understand T-cell response and antibodies?” Gates continued.
Gates, whose foundation has committed up to $100 million toward the pandemic response, said during the event that he began to understand in February that the virus would spread to millions of people, and some countries wouldn’t be able to contain it. But he said he didn’t think the US would be among them.
“Of course at that time we wouldn’t have thought that the US would be a primary country to suffer,” he said. “We still would have expected our ability to diagnose and have clear CDC messages would have meant that we would have been among the least affected.”
Gates praised the team President-elect Joe Biden has appointed to help address the COVID-19 pandemic, and said he and his wife, Melinda, spoke to Biden during the campaign, and Biden made clear that ending the pandemic would be at “the top of the list” for him if he was elected.