by: Kevin Tsang, Gowsith Thillaiambalam, Bixuan Cheng, Douglas Murdock & Manav Gyanchandani
*This project is not affiliated with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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A Summary of “Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: Global Saviour or Guardian of Corporate Interests?” by Alec Wills
For almost two decades, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has played an influential role in international politics. It has funded vaccine research and distribution; pledged to help achieve both the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals; invested in fighting Malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis; funded the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which seeks to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers; and most recently provided funding for research and production of the COVID-19 vaccine; among many other initiatives. During UTSC’s Global International Health Week, the “Gates Foundation: Global Saviour or Guardian of Corporate Interests?” presentation critically analyzed the foundation and discussed the broader implications of the billionaire’s influence in the world.
Early into the talk, it was emphasized that thinking beyond the foundation’s self-descriptions is necessary to have a realistic understanding of the effects it has on the world. After providing a brief history of the foundation, the presenters challenged its actions and critiqued the resulting consequences. For example, the foundation’s involvement with treating Malaria has been criticized for poorly targeting the underlying source of the problem, and that the control now being exerted by billionaires over the Global South furthers colonial legacies. Although the foundation’s work can be credited with many positive developments, the underlying point of concern for the presenters is the way in which immensely powerful private actors are superseding the responsibilities of the government, and privatizing services which might be more equitably distributed through public healthcare. For example, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation played a mediating role for pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca in acquiring the patents for research developed at Oxford University, while the university had promised to make the rights public. In obtaining the intellectual property rights AstraZeneca and companies like it make the distribution of vaccinations a for-profit enterprise, compromising procurement for poorer countries.
This is not to say that these countries receive no assistance. The World Health Organization (WHO) – alongside The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s affiliate Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance – established The Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) initiative, which “in addition to seeking to secure low prices, aims to provide all countries with access to a diversified portfolio of vaccines during the acute phase of the pandemic in 2021” (Wouters, et al., 2021, p. 1028). However, both the WHO and Gavi estimate that more than double the amount of money currently committed to COVAX will be needed to “deliver at least 2 billion doses by the end of 2021” (Wouters, et al., 2021, p. 1028). Recently, demands have emerged for a patent waiver, in which patents are temporarily suspended in order to distribute the vaccines to a wider demographic of people around the world; something which pharmaceutical companies and wealthy countries have resisted (“A patent waiver on COVID vaccines,” 2021). Meanwhile, according to the presenters, many public officials have urged pharmaceutical companies to share their research with COVAX, but none of the companies have agreed thus far. Additionally, about 16% of the world’s population is receiving half the supply of available vaccines. The consequence of this inequality was also discussed: poor countries remain bereft of the vaccinations they might desperately need, while current forecasts estimate low-income countries as having only 20% of their population vaccinated by 2024.
Overarchingly, the points of concern articulated in the presentation are the extent to which one couple and their foundation dictate global health policy; the consequences of private actors’ influence over these policies; and what this means for the future of global health. Importantly, the presenters noted that the current situation does not necessarily imply that private actors have too much power, rather that other actors are not contributing to solutions effectively. The presentation concluded by recommending that governments and multilateral organizations must do more to ensure transparency and equity, and that public health should be distributed as a public good with universal access. For myself, the key takeaway is that we must be diligent in critically analyzing developments in global and international health, to not blindly accept the rosy narratives of private power and the institutions which uphold it, and to determine more optimal policies that will ensure greater justice and equality.
A patent waiver on COVID vaccines is right and fair. (2021). Nature (London), 593(7860), 478-478.
Wouters, O. J., Shadlen, K. C., Salcher-Konrad, M., Pollard, A. J., Larson, H. J., Teerawattananon, Y., & Jit, M. (2021). Challenges in ensuring global access to COVID-19 vaccines: production, affordability, allocation, and deployment. The Lancet (British Edition), 397(10278), 1023-1034.