Bill Gates on whether this bullish timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine is realistic: ‘There’s simply no alternative’

Shawn Langlois

Bill Gates has been a steady voice in delivering a mix of good news — “we should be able to get out of this with the death numbers well short of that” — and bad news — “it is impossible to overstate the pain” — ever since the first signs of a looming pandemic emerged.

The Microsoft
co-founder’s latest take is mostly an example of the former, as he laid out a timeline for a return to normalcy, which, he said, is dependent on a vaccine.

“Humankind has never had a more urgent task than creating broad immunity for coronavirus,” he wrote in a blog post on Thursday. “Realistically, if we’re going to return to normal, we need to develop a safe, effective vaccine. We need to make billions of doses, we need to get them out to every part of the world, and we need all of this happen as quickly as possible.”

How quick is quickly? Five years, Gates wrote, is currently the record for a vaccine timeline. But he thinks we could see one for COVID-19 within 18 months.

This is what that shortened timeline might look like:

“It’s going to require a global cooperative effort like the world has never seen,” Gates explained. “But I know it’ll get done. There’s simply no alternative.”

He said that, in the five-year scenario, the process works just fine. But this time it’s different.

“The normal development timeline isn’t good enough right now,” he continued. “Every day we can cut from this process will make a huge difference to the world in terms of saving lives and reducing trillions of dollars in economic damage.”

Gates said that as it stands now, there are 115 different COVID-19 vaccine candidates in the development pipeline, up to 10 of which he sees as particularly promising.

Ultimately, he believes that the answer could look like the smallpox vaccine, the only vaccine that has successfully eradicated an entire disease. But it was also “pretty brutal to receive,” he said, adding that he is aiming for a more perfect solution.

Another major hurdle is the need to distribute at least 7 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, which presents a unique set of problems for the manufacturer.

“In order to stop the pandemic, we need to make the vaccine available to almost every person on the planet,” Gates said. “We’ve never delivered something to every corner of the world before. And, as I mentioned earlier, vaccines are particularly difficult to make and store.”

That, he said, could take years to complete. Nevertheless, Gates remains hopeful.

“Eventually, though, we’re going to scale this thing up so that the vaccine is available to everyone,” he said. “And then, we’ll be able to get back to normal — and to hopefully make decisions that prevent us from being in this situation ever again.”

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