Bill Gates is able—and willing—to lose big money funding factories for COVID-19 vaccines

Bill Gates
Bill Gates said his foundation plans to spend billions of dollars on factories for potential novel coronavirus vaccines, even though most won't pan out. (CC BY 2.0/Ben Fisher/GAVI Alliance)

Wealthy individuals typically don't set out to waste billions of dollars, but amid the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s exactly what Bill Gates is willing to do. 

Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the billionaire Microsoft founder and philanthropist plans to help fund factories for seven promising vaccines, even before seeing conclusive data. That's despite the fact that two of the programs—at most—will make it through to final development and deployment, he said on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. 

Why? The world can't wait for traditional vaccine deployment timelines, so the foundation aims to help scale up manufacturing during testing, instead of after, Gates said on the show.

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“Our early money can accelerate things,” Gates said. The foundation is picking the seven “most promising” vaccine constructs and will help fund factories for all seven, he added, “even though we’ll end up picking at most two” to actually deploy. 

“To get to the best case” of vaccine deployment in about 18 months, Gates said, “we need to do safety and efficacy and build manufacturing" simultaneously. He acknowledged the plan will result in the loss of “a few billion dollars” on projects that don’t pan out. 

Still, considering the situation the world is in, “a few billion ... is worth it.” He said the effort can save critical months to making a vaccine available, and thus restart economies sooner.

RELATED: Experts weigh in on vaccine prospects as dozens of COVID-19 projects race ahead 

Dozens of novel coronavirus vaccine projects are underway, with Moderna’s getting significant attention so far after entering human testing in record time. During a recent FiercePharma virtual panel, Michael Breen, associate director of infectious diseases at GlobalData, said if the vaccine is successful and it’s “rushed through development and emergency plans are put in place for approval,” it’s possible we could see the vaccine in a year.  

But in vaccine R&D, trial hiccups are “more of the rule than the exception,” he acknowledged. Setbacks could slow things down to 18 months or longer.

Aside from the Moderna program, several Big Pharma companies are involved in COVID-19 vaccine work. Johnson & Johnson has pledged a manufacturing scale-up to 1 billion doses for its federally partnered program, while Sanofi has two partnerships underway—one with the federal government and another with Translate Bio. Learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine projects underway here

RELATED: J&J, BARDA commit $1B to COVID-19 vaccine R&D 

The urgent need for a vaccine is clear. So far, the pandemic has made its way to almost every country, causing more than 1.2 million confirmed infections and 70,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. Experts are also raising alarms about how the virus could hit developing nations that are densely populated and may be underprepared. 

In the end, a successful vaccine will be the “escape hatch” for the global pandemic, Evercore ISI analyst Josh Schimmer wrote in a note to clients Monday.

It'll also represent a huge economic advantage for the first country to start immunizations, the analyst observed. Against that backdrop, Schimmer predicts intense political pressure to approve a vaccine, and he said the pressure could mean lower quality and testing requirements.

“Geopolitical tensions are already evident with COVID, and it’s easy to envision this driving a push for earlier vaccination,” Schimmer wrote. 

That’s not an ideal way to make decisions on vaccine approvals, he added.

"Global harmonization of COVID vaccine-approval requirements” would take political considerations off the table, but it remains to be seen whether that'll be embraced by various countries, he concluded.

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