INTERVIEW: Bill Gates, vaccines and the fight against COVID-19

INTERVIEW: Bill Gates, vaccines and the fight against COVID-19
Illustration by Luis Grañena
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Updated 22 June 2020

INTERVIEW: Bill Gates, vaccines and the fight against COVID-19

INTERVIEW: Bill Gates, vaccines and the fight against COVID-19
  • Hassan Damluji, deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, tells of a “very worrying picture”
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the multibillion-dollar philanthropic organization started by the Microsoft founder and his wife

Hassan Damluji, the deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, gave a candid, perhaps pessimistic view of the coronavirus pandemic that has upturned everyone’s lives.

“Some people are thinking it’s all over, and it may be receding in their countries, but actually, globally, it’s a very worrying picture,” he told Arab News. “We’re deep into wave three.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the multibillion-dollar philanthropic organization started by the Microsoft founder and his wife. It is now one of the most important players in the fight against the virus.

“The first wave hit China, other countries were relatively unaffected and China had big problems while other countries were underestimating the risk,” Damluji explained. 

“The second wave really hit the world’s wealthiest countries, in Europe, North America but also East Asia and that is now reducing, though cases in America are still quite high. Wave three now is where middle and lower-income countries are being hit, especially Latin America, which is the center of the pandemic, but also Pakistan, which is in my region so I look at it closely, but also across Africa, where you’ve seen cases increase.”

He has direct responsibility for the fund’s activities in the Middle East, so is in a strong position to gauge the regional response to the crisis. Damluji was most recently involved in a five-year fundraising cycle for GAVI, the global vaccine alliance.

Saudi Arabia took a strong lead at the event and contributed $150 million toward a pot that eventually reached $8.8 billion, some $1.2 billion more than was being asked for. The Kingdom had earlier pledged a total of $500 million toward antivirus activities at a G20 meeting in Riyadh. Damluji is appreciative of Saudi Arabia’s efforts.

“That was very generous and that was a really powerful kick-off for the fundraising. The Saudis came in early. What was powerful was not just that they were putting money in, but they sent a signal and others had an obligation to follow. That was great leadership, given that Saudi Arabia is the president of the G20.

“It surpassed expectations, but the need is going to be bigger because of what’s going on with the virus. Saudi Arabia really stepped up with regard to procurement for coronavirus vaccines when they become available. That was really important.”

"The money raised by GAVI - to which the Gates Foundation is a major contributor - will be used to purchase vaccines against coronavirus when they are available, and distribute them equitably across the world."


BIO

Born: London 1982.

Education

  • Westminster School, London.
  • Chelsea College, Fine Art Foundation.

  • Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, BA Classics and Arabic.

  • Harvard University, MA Middle East Studies.

Career

  • Senior engagement manager, McKinsey & Co.

  • Chief operating officer, New Schools Network.
  • Chief operating officer, Achievement for All.

  • Deputy director, global policy and advocacy, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


Damluji offered a sobering assessment of current progress toward finding a vaccine.

“In terms of developing tools to combat it, we’re still at the research and development phase. People want to know a date when a vaccine will be available, but the truth is that in innovation, sometimes things never happen, sometimes they happen much faster than you thought, and sometimes they take a circuitous route.

“For example no one thought the brave new world would be the iPhone in your pocket. So it’s very difficult to predict how R&D will proceed, but when it comes to a vaccine, what is clear is that this is the fastest, most-concerted and best-funded effort to create a vaccine ever.

“There are some early candidates for a successful vaccine which have shown some promising results, so there is reason to be optimistic. The early ones we’re seeing, whether it’s the Oxford-AstraZeneca one or others, tend to be on the same technological platform, and it’s because of that similarity that they’ve been able to move fast. But if one of them fails, they’ll likely all fail, because it’s the same basic approach in terms of the science.”

There is a glimmer of hope for an early outcome. “If we’re lucky, several of them will work quite quickly and, by the middle of next year, we’ll have quite a lot of vaccines on the market.”

But that was not guaranteed, he warned. “If we’re unlucky, none of them will work and then we’ll have hundreds (of possible vaccines) out there on different timelines. We will eventually get a vaccine, but it’s overly optimistic to think of the middle of next year as a definite.”

There is a risk that, while the world’s best scientific brains are concentrating on finding a vaccine, attention will be distracted from other serious infectious diseases that are afflicting the world, especially in the poorest countries.

For example, the Gates Foundation invested a lot of time and effort into a campaign to eradicate polio, which hit countries in the Middle East and Asia particularly hard. It came close to declaring victory against this disease, only for it to re-emerge as a threat in Pakistan.

“There is a big risk. The polio vaccination campaigns in Pakistan, home to the most cases of ‘wild’ polio, have stopped for several months now. We had hoped to restart them this month, but the course of the pandemic in Pakistan — it still hasn’t hit the peak — means we still haven’t restarted, and are now hoping for August.

“So polio vaccinations in Pakistan have just stopped. You might hope that some of the social distancing measures against COVID-19 would also reduce the transmission of other diseases, but the fact is that, certainly for polio, the program has taken a big hit,” Damluji said, adding that it was difficult for developing countries to combat more than one serious disease at a time. “In poor countries, when you do more of one thing you do less of another. When the Ebola crisis hit West Africa, far more people died from a lack of availability of basic health services, not from Ebola. It’s very likely you’re going to see the same kind of thing with the coronavirus.”

The Gates Foundation, and especially its founder, have been the target of some wild conspiracy theories since the pandemic broke. Despite Bill Gates’ commitment to use the billions he made from Microsoft for philanthropic purposes, and especially to combat coronavirus, he has been accused, in some of the wilder parts of social media, of bidding for world domination.

Damluji has no time for the conspiracists.

“I think this shows the importance of quality journalism. In the online world, there is nothing to prevent you writing whatever you want, and if people find something they think is interesting they will forward it and it will spread. What we’ve found is that quality journalistic sources, by and large, if they report this kind of conspiracy theory at all, they report it as something very strange that other people are saying, rather than as fact, and they’re actually rebutting it. That’s been really good to see.

“Anyone who is concerned to find out whether these things are true should look at reputable sources and they’ll find very little evidence to make them believe it. In the wild west of WhatsApp forwarding all kinds of things are said.”

The Gates Foundation is “laser-focused” on ethical standards, but takes a pragmatic approach to the funding process. “Our basic approach is that we work with governments across the world to do as much as we can to save lives and achieve the goals we’re trying to achieve. There is criticism of a lot of governments, some of it is valid, some of it isn’t, and that applies across the board,” he said.

There has also been a worry that, in view of the economic crisis the world is facing, contributions to philanthropic organizations like GAVI will dry up as governments and individuals perceive a need for a “charity begins at home” approach.

“One of the things to be concerned about is whether long-term aid — not just philanthropy, but bigger than that, government aid for things like GAVI or other programs that save lives and improve livelihoods — if those are damaged over the long term, then it’s a cause for concern.

“In terms of the question of are governments getting it right or wrong, that’s not for me to say. There are balances to strike, and only an individual society can decide the difficult trade-off between death versus economic damage.”

But he is adamant on one thing: Governments across the world must adopt policies to prevent another pandemic.

“If we had built a stronger pandemic preparedness system, we would not be in the situation we are now,” he said.


Oil prices rise over 1 percent as fresh virus curbs threaten demand recovery


Oil prices rise over 1 percent as fresh virus curbs threaten demand recovery

Updated 06 August 2021

Oil prices rise over 1 percent as fresh virus curbs threaten demand recovery


Oil prices rise over 1 percent as fresh virus curbs threaten demand recovery


LONDON: Oil prices rose about 1 percent on Thursday on increasing Middle East tensions, but fresh movement restrictions imposed by countries to counter a surge in COVID-19 cases threatened the demand recovery.

Brent crude oil futures rose 78 cents, or 1.1 percent, to $71.16 a barrel, after earlier dipping below $70 for the first time since July 21.

US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures traded 80 cents, or 1.2 percent, higher at $68.95 a barrel.

The growing regional tensions come as nuclear talks between Iran and Western powers that would ease sanctions on Tehran’s oil exports appear to have stalled.

“With tensions brewing among Iran and world powers over last week’s drone attack, it seems nuclear deal talks will be lengthy and unlikely to provide imminent sanction relief for Iran,” said Edward Moya, senior analyst at OANDA.

Offsetting the geopolitical tensions, concerns over the recovery of global oil demand grew amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

Both benchmarks fell for a third day in a row to a two-week low on Wednesday, partly due to the spread of the coronavirus delta variant.

Japan is poised to expand emergency restrictions to more prefectures while China, the world’s second-largest oil consumer, has imposed curbs in some cities and canceled flights, threatening fuel demand.

“China is now facing its most challenging COVID-19 crisis since the initial outbreak was brought under control,” analysts at consultancy FGE said in a note on Thursday.

In the US, the world’s biggest oil consumer, COVID-19 cases hit a six-month high with more than 100,000 infections reported on Wednesday, according to a Reuters tally.

Analysts at investment bank UBS, however, said they expect oil prices to resume their upward trend despite pandemic concerns, projecting Brent crude will trade between $75 and $80 per barrel in the second half of 2021.


Saudi Ports Authority records 
growth in activities in first half of 2021

Saudi Ports Authority records 
growth in activities in first half of 2021
Updated 06 August 2021

Saudi Ports Authority records 
growth in activities in first half of 2021

Saudi Ports Authority records 
growth in activities in first half of 2021

RIYADH: The Saudi Ports Authority (Mawani) announced on Thursday that all areas of its activities had seen growth during the first half of 2021.

The announcement reflects the Kingdom’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In terms of containers, Mawani handled 3.6 million TEU (a measure of volume equivalent to a 20-foot cargo container) during the first half of the year — a jump of 5.18 percent year-on-year. Transshipment containers increased by 24.49 percent to 1.4 million TEU, while it handled a total of 138 million tons of cargo.

The number of passengers grew by 0.61 percent year-on-year to 288,000, and Mawani handled 429,000 imported cars.

BACKGROUND

In July, Saudi Ports Authority announced investment opportunities in partnership with the private sector to develop and operate multipurpose terminals in eight of the nation’s ports.

The authority also recorded an increase in the number of ships received at the Kingdom’s ports, which received 6,037 vessels — an increase of 6.6 percent over the same period last year.

Mawani launched four shipping lines in 2020 to help increase Saudi ports’ connectivity with their international counterparts.

In July, the authority announced investment opportunities in partnership with the private sector to develop and operate multipurpose terminals in eight of the nation’s ports, in line with the objectives of Saudi Vision 2030, which include making the Kingdom a leading global logistics platform and connecting hub.

The build-operate-transfer (BOT) contracts on offer are for terminals in Jeddah Islamic Port, King Abdulaziz Port in Dammam, Ras Al-Khair Port, Jizan Port, Yanbu Commercial Port, King Fahad Industrial Port in Jubail, King Fahad Industrial Port in Yanbu, and Jubail Commercial Port.

One of the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 is for transport and logistics to contribute 10 percent of the country’s GDP by that date, up from its current 6 percent, following the implementation of the Kingdom’s new strategy for the sector.

 


Pent-up travel demand helps Lufthansa halve losses


Pent-up travel demand helps Lufthansa halve losses

Updated 05 August 2021

Pent-up travel demand helps Lufthansa halve losses


Pent-up travel demand helps Lufthansa halve losses


FRANKFURT: German airline Lufthansa said on Thursday it halved its losses in the second quarter compared to a year ago, as travel restrictions eased over the coronavirus pandemic and passengers returned.

Europe’s largest airline group said its net loss between April and June came in at €756 million ($890 million) compared with 1.5 billion euros last year, when travel worldwide was halted by COVID-19.

Increased bookings saw the company record a positive cash flow in the second quarter for the first time since the start of the health crisis.

“We have been able to stop the outflow of funds in the current phase of reviving our business and generate a positive cash flow for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic,” said CEO Carsten Spohr.

“In June alone, the number of bookings was more than twice as high as at the beginning of the quarter,” the company said.

Lufthansa said it still expected to operate at 40 percent of its pre-crisis capacity this year, leaving its projection unchanged.

Flight capacity will increase to 50 percent in the third quarter, on the back of continued recovery in demand in Europe, increased business travel and the opening up of further markets, such as North America.

Following an announcement from the US that the country would begin to allow vaccinated foreigners to travel to the country at some point, Spohr said in a conference call that Lufthansa was planning on the change to be implemented at the “end of September.”

In terms of the risk posed to the business by the spread of the more-infectious delta variant, Spohr said that the progress of the vaccination campaign was “more important” for the sector.

As a result, Lufthansa expects to book positive operating, or underlying, profit later this year on its path back into the black.

Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA), a yardstick closely watched by analysts, was still severely negative in the second quarter, with the company registering a loss of about €400 million in the second quarter.

Lufthansa, which also includes Austrian, Swiss and Brussels Airlines, was saved from bankruptcy last June by a German government bailout.

Lufthansa’s chief financial officer Remco Steenbergen said the company was discussing with investors about how to raise the capital needed to pay down the state aid the group received, and said the final figure would be “significantly less” than the €3 billion to €4 billion previously mooted.

The company is in the throes of a painful restructuring to slash costs that will include thousands of job cuts, with 30,000 already axed since the start of the pandemic.

As part of the recovery plan, the airline will slash its current fleet of 800 aircraft to 650 by 2023.


JP Morgan launches bitcoin fund; Uruguay mulls letting businesses accept cryptos

JP Morgan launches bitcoin fund; Uruguay mulls letting businesses accept cryptos
Updated 05 August 2021

JP Morgan launches bitcoin fund; Uruguay mulls letting businesses accept cryptos

JP Morgan launches bitcoin fund; Uruguay mulls letting businesses accept cryptos

DUBAI, RIYADH: The second-largest cryptocurrency after bitcoin, Ethereum, recorded gains early on Thursday as investors anticipate a major upgrade that is aimed to improve and optimize the digital currency.

Its price was up by around 8 percent over the last 24 hours, according to Forbes.

Ether traded at $2,687.71 at 5 p.m. Riyadh time on Thursday, according to data from Coindesk.

Bitcoin traded lower, falling by 2.78  percent to $38,035.85.

In other developments, a report by Pymnts and Bitpay showed consumers in the US are increasingly interested in using cryptocurrencies for their payments.

“The report analyzes a census-balanced survey of 8,008 US consumers who were current and former cryptocurrency owners and cryptocurrency nonowners between Feb. 8 and Feb. 23, 2021,” the report said, cited by Bitcoin.com.

It found that 93 percent of crypto users would consider making purchases using cryptocurrency, while 59 percent of non-crypto owners said they are interested in using it for their purchases in the future.

In Europe, French asset manager Melanion Capital received regulatory approval to launch an exchange-traded fund (ETF) tracking bitcoin price for investors across the region.

Another act to regulate the industry is from a senator in Uruguay who introduced a bill to allow businesses to accept cryptocurrencies as payments.

The bill will provide “legal, financial and fiscal security in the business derived from the production and commercialization” of crypto, CoinDesk has reported.

JP Morgan has launched an in-house bitcoin fund, and has begun pitching it to private bank clients.

Google’s new ad policy for financial products and services has gone into effect – and it allows some crypto ads.

In the East, Hong Kong is seeing a rise in crypto-related crimes, according to Bitcoin.com, with authorities saying it could be due to the increasing popularity of crypto investments.

But in China, a global leader in the crypto scene, these crimes have decreased significantly in recent years.


Saudi Maaden shifts to profitability in the second quarter, year-on-year

Saudi Maaden shifts to profitability in the second quarter, year-on-year
Updated 05 August 2021

Saudi Maaden shifts to profitability in the second quarter, year-on-year

Saudi Maaden shifts to profitability in the second quarter, year-on-year

RIYADH: The Saudi Arabian Mining Co. (Maaden) turned in profits after zakat and tax, at about SR1.1 billion ($2.94 billion) in the second quarter of 2021, compared to losses of about SR434.15 million in the second quarter of 2020, the company announced in a statement on the Saudi Stock Market (Tadawul).

Maaden’s profits increased by 45.1 percent in the second quarter of 2021, compared to profits of about SR761.15 million in the first quarter, while revenues rose by 11.95 percent to SR6.1 billion.

The company attributed its shift to profitability year-on-year to the increase in the average prices achieved for all products except industrial minerals, despite the decrease in the quantities sold of gold, ammonia and alumina.

Profitability was also due to the increase in net profit attributable to Maaden’s stake in joint ventures and the increase in other revenues, despite the decrease in income from term deposits.