ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has spent years thinking and warning about pandemics. Five years ago, he gave a TED talk on the subject that has been viewed almost 30 million times.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
BILL GATES: If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it's most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war.
SHAPIRO: He warned then that the world was not ready. Now that we are in the middle of such an outbreak, he's thinking about how to make up for lost time. Bill Gates is co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which we should mention is an NPR funder.
It's good to have you back on the program. Thanks for being here.
GATES: Good to talk to you.
SHAPIRO: We're now more than a month into the epidemic in the United States. How would you rate the U.S. response so far?
GATES: Well, you always wish that you'd acted sooner. And there are things like prioritizing who gets tested that we're still not doing. But the social isolation has been stepped up and, you know, it looks like that'll cause us to get to a peak in the areas that have done that well late this month. And then, you know, by the end of May, we may be able to have the cases down at a low-enough level we can look at some opening up.
SHAPIRO: So good marks on social distancing; not such good marks on prioritizing who gets tested. If you were tomorrow appointed the COVID-19 czar in the U.S., what steps would you take immediately?
GATES: Well, it's pretty simple to say that there should be a government website that you enter your symptoms, your profession and it gives you a rating in terms of this very finite testing capacity we have to make sure that you always get results within 24 hours, that health care workers are getting those results very quickly, that it's not random based on where you are in the country or, you know, your relationship to the hospital. Rather, we're using that as the indicator of where we need to intensify distancing or where we can back off.
SHAPIRO: And you talked about the possibility that we'll be able to reopen offices, schools, et cetera soon. Given how the U.S. responded initially to this disease, how confident are you in the U.S. taking a responsible, thoughtful, evidence-based approach to returning to something like normal?
GATES: Well, I think what I'm saying, what Dr. Fauci is saying, what some other experts are saying - you know, there's a great deal of consistency. We're not sure yet which activities should be resumed because until we get a vaccine that almost everybody's had, the risk of a rebound will be there. We don't know about seasonality. We don't know how much the younger part of the infection chain.
But as we follow the numbers into May and see if we can get them down to a very low level, then in parallel, this debate about which things have benefits to society and can be formatted so the infection risk is very low - which things should we resume. And I do think manufacturing, construction, a lot of things we'll do. But large public gatherings may have to await until we have that vaccine.
SHAPIRO: I know you're investing so much money in the specific research into COVID-19 and have more broadly invested so much of your wealth into addressing global health problems more broadly. There are wealthy people who say, this is the job for governments and international bodies like the World Health Organization, not my job. So taking a step back, what do you think the right balance is between the responsibility of governments and international organizations to address these problems versus the responsibility of the ultrarich?
GATES: Well, the responsibility to protect the public and have been prepared for disasters like this - that's totally a governmental responsibility. So you know, when I spoke out in 2015, that was really speaking to governments. We're lucky that a lot of the innovative work making vaccines quickly - this approach called the RNA platform - our foundation and others have financed that, and that may be why we can get the vaccine in 18 months.
But in the end, protecting the public - you only can rely on the government. Most governments wouldn't get a superhigh grade in this case, but I do think after this pandemic, people will take it seriously, and they'll use the innovative science that philanthropy has driven forward to make sure we are ready for the next epidemic.
SHAPIRO: That leads to the last question I wanted to ask, which is, in the longer term, after this crisis subsides, what do you think the world needs to do to make sure that we are more prepared for the next one?
GATES: Well, imagine that the diagnostics had been available in a month and the therapeutics in four months and the vaccine in less than a year. When you have something that grows exponentially, the speed of those responses make all the difference. You know, a few countries really jumped on the testing and prioritized it properly, and they are not going to suffer nearly the deaths or the economic loss that most other countries will go through.
We should make sure that we have those platforms ready to go. And the science is such that's very doable. And so we - you know, we'll have to see this as something that's coming again and again and again.
SHAPIRO: Bill Gates is co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Thank you for speaking with us today.
GATES: Thank you.
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