The last normal workday at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was Wednesday, March 4.
That afternoon, Rob Rosen wrapped up his most important meeting of the year — an annual review with the Gateses for the program he leads on philanthropic partnerships. Back in his office a couple of hours later he — and everyone else at the Seattle campus — got a message from CEO Mark Suzman telling them to pack up and work from home for the foreseeable future.
“I was running to make sure I had what I needed for what I thought might be a period of some weeks,” Rosen recalled. “But now here we are.”
The world’s richest charity didn’t just shift workplaces, though. It also shifted gears. As a deadly new virus raced around the globe — something Bill Gates had been warning about for years — the Microsoft co-founder and his wife mobilized an organization with vast disease-fighting expertise to pitch in.
“This has the foundation’s total attention,” Gates told the Financial Times in April.
The charity didn’t stop what it had been doing before — from working to eradicate malaria to helping farmers in Africa boost crop yields. But it added COVID-19 to the top of its priority list, said Suzman, who had just taken over as CEO on Feb. 1. He estimates about two-thirds of the foundation’s 1,500 employees are now either working directly on COVID-19 or on projects affected by the pandemic.
The $650 million the foundation has committed for treatments, vaccines and other public health measures — $350 million in grants and $300 million from an investment fund that plows profits back into the work — is the biggest contribution from any independent foundation. It ranks second in private COVID-19 giving behind Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s $1 billion relief fund.
Bill Gates has also made the pandemic a personal cause. He’s been everywhere — on television, in medical journals, in online Q&As — speaking out with unusual vehemence about the bungled U.S. response and pushing for expanded testing and equitable distribution of vaccines.
The foundation’s health and development work rarely attracts much criticism — or even notice — in the U.S., because it’s almost exclusively based in the developing world. But in the politicized atmosphere of a pandemic that affects everyone, Gates and the foundation have become what one expert describes as the “voodoo doll” of conspiracy theories.
One false rumor claims that Gates plans to use a COVID-19 vaccine to inject people with tracking devices; another scenario casts him as part of a shadowy group that somehow orchestrated the pandemic and seeks to profit from it. A bogus image that circulated widely this spring showed a sign at the foundation’s headquarters doctored to read “Center for Global Human Population Reduction.”
The rumors are worrisome, especially if they discourage people from getting a vaccine when it’s available, said Suzman, who’s also concerned about the foundation’s reputation.
“A lot of what we depend on is the credibility that our voice and our mission does not have any ulterior motives other than wanting to save lives and provide opportunities for those in need,” he said.
There are legitimate reasons to question the influence of powerful nonprofits like the Gates Foundation, as well as the laws and tax structures that allow individuals to accumulate such staggering wealth, said Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and author of “Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count.” But in a crisis, it’s hard to fault the Gates Foundation for stepping up.
“We can all wish we didn’t need philanthropy,” Buchanan said. “But if ever there was a time where it’s clear we can’t rely on the federal government to do what needs to be done, this is that time.”
Gates funding a strategic ‘drop in the ocean’
Philanthropy can act quickly and fill gaps, Suzman said. “We don’t want to be displacing or substituting for any government or private sector money that would be coming in.”
That’s particularly important in research and development, which has attracted an outpouring of nearly $9 billion globally. “The Gates Foundation investment is only a small part of that — a drop in the ocean,” said Dr. Nick Chapman, executive director of the global health think tank Policy Cures Research. “But I think what it has done has been really strategic.”
One of Gates’ rapid initiatives was a partnership with the British philanthropy Wellcome and others to bankroll screening of already-approved drugs to see if they work against the novel coronavirus. Tapping its connections in the pharmaceutical industry, the foundation got nearly a dozen drug companies to grant free access to their compound libraries.
Called the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, the $250 million program is also funding trials on potential treatments.
The Gates Foundation has also been a key player in efforts to ensure that diagnostics, drugs and vaccines will be available in poor countries at reasonable prices, said Greg Witkowski of Columbia University, who studies the role of philanthropy in disaster response. “I’m not sure who else would help provide these vaccines … to nations who might not otherwise be able to afford them.”
The foundation pledged $100 million to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to guarantee doses for the developing world. It’s also providing $150 million from the foundation’s Strategic Investment Fund to an Indian pharmaceutical company that will manufacture shots for low-income nations at a cost of $3 each once a vaccine is approved.
Violaine Mitchell, one of the foundation’s representatives to the Gavi board, described how the multilateral group crafted a plan in record time to speed development of vaccines, allow countries to pool resources and guarantee equitable distribution, with health care workers and other high-risk people getting first priority.
“It’s been pretty cool to watch,” she said. “Normally, a big discussion item like that, we would have been debating it for a year and a half.”
The Trump administration announced last week that the U.S. won’t participate in the plan, called Covax, opting to go it alone on vaccine development and procurement. But 76 wealthy nations, including Japan, Germany and Norway, are joining the effort along with most low-income countries.
Investments years ago sped current vaccine research
One of the reasons vaccine research got off to such a quick start, Chapman pointed out, is an investment the Gates Foundation and others made several years ago to create the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation, or CEPI. The partnership is designed to accelerate development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases and started giving out grants as soon as the novel coronavirus was recognized.
CEPI is now a major funder of several promising COVID-19 vaccines.
The Gates Foundation is piggybacking some of its other funding on that work. For example, it gave Maryland-based Novavax $15 million last month to broaden clinical trials on an experimental vaccine and include a diverse population in South Africa, where the virus is beginning to surge.
The pandemic’s impact on Africa is a major focus for Gates. One of the foundation’s first coronavirus grants went to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At the time, only two countries had the ability to test for the new virus, said Solomon Zewdu, a deputy director for the foundation and coordinator of its pandemic response across the continent. The grant was used to train staff and equip labs.
“It was one of those really critical investments in which we were able to see, within a month, 40 countries being able to do … testing in their own laboratories,” he said from his home — and now, office — in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The foundation worked with the Ethiopian government and the World Bank to quickly build a temporary, 1,000-bed hospital, both to increase capacity and to serve as a blueprint for facilities elsewhere. While early lockdowns in many African nations initially kept the virus under control, cases have been spiking recently and the hospital is currently at capacity, Zewdu said.
African countries remain at the back of the line when it comes to acquiring protective gear for health workers, testing swabs and other supplies, a problem the foundation is scrambling to help solve, he said. Another Gates-funded initiative is working to secure respirators and oxygen supplies for hospitals, which will improve care during the pandemic and beyond.
Helping the superrich give where it’s needed most
Closer to home, the foundation has given $5 million in Seattle and other Washington communities for relief programs, homeless shelters and to expand testing.
Money has flowed the other way as well.
Rosen’s program focuses on helping other donors make effective use of their charitable contributions. Because many people want to support the Gates work, the foundation accepts donations — which have poured in since the pandemic began.
The foundation’s Combating COVID-19 Fund has received $136 million from nearly 3,400 donors, with all the money going to coronavirus work, Rosen said.
He and his team also recently launched an online platform called PowerOf.org to connect potential donors and volunteers directly with trusted nonprofits working on COVID-19.
Part of Rosen’s job is working with the 210 superrich signatories of the Gates-initiated “Giving Pledge,” a vow to devote the bulk of their fortunes to philanthropy.
Since the pandemic began, Rosen’s group has conducted 28 online “learning sessions” for that elite group, outlining some of the most urgent needs. He won’t say which billionaires have stepped up for which COVID-19 causes. But at least two contributors to the Therapeutics Accelerator — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, gave $25 million — are signatories.
Inspiring others to chip in is something the Gateses and their foundation are very good at, Chapman said. As with the Therapeutics Accelerator, the foundation will often provide seed money, then others follow suit.
“I think that is one of their key impacts,” said Chapman, whose think tank does contract work for the foundation. “It’s not just that they provide the funding where it’s needed, but they work very hard to make sure other people are contributing, too.”
The dollars are big, but only a fraction of Gates resources
Critics of “big philanthropy” point out that the money The Gates Foundation has spent on the pandemic represents less than 1% of the foundation’s $46.8 billion endowment, and an even tinier fraction of Bill Gates’ net worth of more than $100 billion.
“I really think it’s important to remember that $350 million for Bill Gates is equivalent to maybe a couple of hundred or a couple of thousand dollars for the rest of us,” said Mohit Mookim, a researcher at The Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University.
Mookim and Stanford political science professor Rob Reich argued in a March column in Wired that while philanthropy can play an important role, especially in a pandemic where the federal government didn’t even provide adequate testing, it can never be a stopgap for basic government services.
“The richest country in the world must step up to fund public health rather than relying on the richest people in the world to do it piecemeal,” they wrote.
Suzman said he’s in active discussions with Bill and Melinda Gates about what else the foundation can do going forward. “I think the answer will depend a little bit on what the world is doing and where the needs are,” he said.
If they’re looking for spare change, the foundation might find it in one area where the pandemic has slashed costs: travel, which has been almost entirely eliminated.
According to a tax statement, the foundation spent nearly $91 million in 2018 on conferences and travel expenses for staff and grant recipients. That’s more than most U.S. foundations give away in a year.