Bill Gates at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2020 annual meeting in Seattle in February. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)Bill Gates was in the news this year almost as much as when he was running Microsoft, as an advocate for science and equity in the pandemic. If things turn out as he hopes, perhaps he won’t end up on CNN quite as much in 2021, at least not solely to discuss COVID-19.
Gates recaps the unprecedented events of the past year in his annual year-end blog post, published Tuesday morning. He analyzes what worked, what didn’t, and explains what surprised him. He also offers two reasons for optimism about 2021: the effectiveness of interventions to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19; and the arrival of vaccines to inoculate against it.
“When I think back on the pace of scientific advances in 2020, I am stunned,” he writes. “Humans have never made more progress on any disease in a year than the world did on COVID-19 this year. Under normal circumstances, creating a vaccine can take 10 years. This time, multiple vaccines were created in less than one year.”
Gates predicts that the availability of vaccines will reach the scale necessary for global impact in the spring of 2021.
“Although there will still need to be some restrictions (on big public gatherings, for example), the number of cases and deaths will start to go down a lot—at least in wealthy countries—and life will be much closer to normal than it is now,” he writes.
In the meantime, he points to the need to create better tests for the novel coronavirus, with faster results and less painful methods of gathering samples. His private office, Gates Ventures, is funding the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network’s free at-home test for COVID-19, which works by swabbing the tip of the nose. A similar project is under way in San Francisco.
“What’s important about the Seattle and San Francisco projects is that they’re helping researchers see how the virus spreads,” Gates writes. “And in the future, the system for sending out and processing test kits will be useful for detecting other new pathogens that might arise.”
Separately, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $1.75 billion to global COVID-19 initiatives, focusing largely on the equitable distribution of vaccines around the world.
In the months ahead, Gates will have another issue on his agenda: climate change. His new book on the topic, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, is due out in February.
Concluding his year-end post, he says he hopes to spend much of his time in the next year talking with world leaders about both climate change and COVID-19.
“A year from now, I do think we’ll be able to look back and say that 2021 was an improvement on 2020,” he writes. “The improvement may not be enormous, but it will be a noticeable, measurable step forward for people around the world.”