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.


AlUla awards $14m housing complex contract

AlUla awards $14m housing complex contract
Updated 16 June 2021

AlUla awards $14m housing complex contract

AlUla awards $14m housing complex contract
  • The project, which consists of 150 modular, high-quality and furnished units, is scheduled to be completed in three months

RIYADH: Red Sea International Co. said it won a SR52.9 million ($14.1 million) contract to design and build a housing complex in AlUla, northwest Saudi Arabia.

The contract for 150 “modular, high-quality and fully furnished accommodation units” was awarded by the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) and is expected to be complete in three months, Red Sea International said in a filing to the Tadawul stock exchange on Wednesday.

AlUla is home to the archeological site of Dadan, which is being developed into a cultural tourist destination.

Dadan, a civilization that dates back more than 2,700 years and pre-dates the Nabataean civilization as well as the Roman presence in the Arabian Peninsula, was once the capital for the Dadan and Lihyan Kingdoms and is considered to be one of the most developed 1st-millennium BCE cities of the Arabian Peninsula.

In April, Amr AlMadani, CEO of the RCU, the entity set up by the Saudi Ministry of Finance in July 2017 to manage the development of the site, told Arab News the commission has invested $2 billion in initial seed funding for the initial development of the historical development area. A further $3.2 billion, which will come from public-private partnerships, has also been earmarked for spending on priority infrastructure ahead of the completion of phase one of the project in 2023.

“We are well into executing phase one. This includes the upgrade of the airport, which has been completed. We will start our low-carbon tram development infrastructure as well. And, so far, our visitor experience centers in the heritage and nature site are being upgraded,” AlMadani said.

The “Journey Through Time Masterplan” was recently announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Upon completion in 2035, the development project aims to create 38,000 new jobs, attract 2 million visitors a year, expand the population of the area to 130,000, and contribute $32 billion to the Kingdom’s economy.


Dubai-based Luxury Closet raises $14m for thrifty lovers of luxury

Dubai-based Luxury Closet raises $14m for thrifty lovers of luxury
Updated 16 June 2021

Dubai-based Luxury Closet raises $14m for thrifty lovers of luxury

Dubai-based Luxury Closet raises $14m for thrifty lovers of luxury

RIYADH: The Luxury Closet, an online platform for buying and selling used high-end goods, secured fresh financing worth $14 million to bankroll the company’s expansion outside the UAE, Bloomberg reported.
The Dubai-based startup is raising funds for international expansion by marrying luxury with thrift.
The financing is led by GMP Capital, alongside international and local investors including Huda Beauty Investment.
“Re-sale is the future of shopping,” said Kunal Kapoor, chief executive and founder of The Luxury Closet. 
“We expect one in six transactions to be pre-owned by the end of the decade,” he added.
Gulf spending on the resale market was among the highest before the pandemic,according to Bain & Co.
But spending on the local luxury market fell by 17 percent afterward.


Egypt, UK discuss cooperation in electricity sector

Egypt, UK discuss cooperation in electricity sector
Updated 16 June 2021

Egypt, UK discuss cooperation in electricity sector

Egypt, UK discuss cooperation in electricity sector
  • Trevelyan is on her first visit to Egypt since assuming her post
  • During their meeting, Shaker praised cooperation between his ministry and British firms

CAIRO: Egypt’s Minister of Electricity and Renewable Energy Mohamed Shaker met with Anne-Marie Trevelyan, British minister of state for business, energy and clean growth.
They discussed how the two countries can enhance cooperation in the electricity and renewable energy sector.
Trevelyan, who is also UK representative for the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, is on her first visit to Egypt since assuming her post. She will discuss preparations for the conference, set to be held in Glasgow in November.
During their meeting, Shaker praised cooperation between his ministry and British firms, saying they are trusted partners who play a huge role in the electricity sector and in helping achieve the goals of the Egyptian Energy Strategy 2035.


Saudi Arabia co-chairs meeting on restructuring Chad’s debts

Saudi Arabia co-chairs meeting on restructuring Chad’s debts
Updated 16 June 2021

Saudi Arabia co-chairs meeting on restructuring Chad’s debts

Saudi Arabia co-chairs meeting on restructuring Chad’s debts
  • Chad is the first country to request the restructuring under the new Common Framework for Debt Treatments beyond the Debt Service Suspension Initiative

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has co-chaired the fourth creditor committee meeting to help Chad restructure its debts under a new G20 framework.

The African state requested the restructuring in January as it struggled with a high debt burden exacerbated by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Chad is the first country to request the restructuring under the new Common Framework for Debt Treatments beyond the Debt Service Suspension Initiative. The framework was agreed in November by the G20 under Saudi Arabia’s presidency and the committee held its first meeting in April this year.

Saudi Arabia co-chaired the June 10 virtual meeting with France. The other committee members also included China and India, while representatives from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were also present as observers.

“The creditor committee supports Chad’s envisaged IMF upper credit tranche program and its swift adoption by the IMF Executive Board to address Chad’s urgent financing needs. The creditor committee encourages Multilateral Development Banks to maximize their support for Chad to meet its long-term financial needs,” the committee said in a press statement.

The statement added that committee members “are committed” to negotiate with Chad to restructure its debts.

The committee highlighted that it was important that private sector creditors be offered “debt treatments on terms at least as favorable as those being considered by the creditor committee, in line with the comparability of treatment principle.”

The IMF in January completed initial talks with Chad on a new medium-term financing program worth about $560 million. According to the IMF, Chad’s total debt amounted to $2.8 billion, or 25.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), at the end of 2019. China is its largest official bilateral creditor, according to a report by Reuters.


Mubadala to invest $100m in a Chinese on-demand trucking startup before IPO

Mubadala to invest $100m in a Chinese on-demand trucking startup before IPO
Updated 16 June 2021

Mubadala to invest $100m in a Chinese on-demand trucking startup before IPO

Mubadala to invest $100m in a Chinese on-demand trucking startup before IPO
  • Mubadala to take part in private placements before IPO
  • Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board also investing $100 million

NEW YORK: UAE sovereign investment vehicle Mubadala plans to invest $100 million in Full Truck Alliance Co., a Chinese trucking startup that styles itself as “Uber for trucks,” Bloomberg reported.
Full Truck Alliance (FTA) said on Tuesday it is aiming for a valuation of over $20 billion in its US initial public offering, marking another high-profile Chinese stock market listing in New York this year.
This coincides with a private placement in which the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board and Mubadala will each purchase $100 million worth of Class A ordinary shares, Bloomberg said.
FTA, more popularly referred to as Manbang in China, said it is offering 82.5 million American Depositary Shares (ADS) at between $17 and $19 per ADS. Each ADS represents 20 Class A ordinary shares.
At the top end of the price range, FTA could raise as much as $1.57 billion from the IPO,which would make it the largest US listing for a Chinese company this year, according to data provider Refinitiv. Chinese vaping firm RLX Technology Inc. raised $1.4 billion in its US IPO in January.
Those figures are expected to be dwarfed in the coming weeks when China’s largest ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing launches its IPO, which is expected to be the biggest share sale of the year. Reuters has previously reported that Didi could raise as much as $10 billion from its stock market flotation.
A spate of richly valued Chinese tech startups have targeted IPOs in the US in recent years, as they can tap into the deepest capital pool in the world and avoid tighter regulatory scrutiny in major Asian exchanges like Hong Kong.
Last year, Chinese companies raised $12 billion from US listings, nearly triple the amount raised in 2019, according to Refinitiv data. This year is expected to comfortably surpass last year’s tally.
Chinese companies have so far raised $5.82 billion in the United States this year, according to Refinitiv data.
FTA, formed out of a merger in 2017 between two digital freight platforms, Yunmanman and Huochebang, is led by former Alibaba executive Peter Hui Zhang.
The company runs a mobile app that connects truck drivers to people that need to ship items within China. It was the world’s largest digital-freight platform by gross transaction value last year, according to research from China Insights Consultancy that was commissioned by the company.
In November, FTA was valued at nearly $12 billion after a $1.7 billion investment, Reuters reported. That investment round was led by Japanese conglomerate SoftBank’s Vision Fund, Sequoia Capital, Permira Capital and Fidelity.
China’s tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. is also one of the company’s backers.
Morgan Stanley, CICC and Goldman Sachs are among the underwriters for FTA’s offering in New York. The company plans to list on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “YMM.”