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.


Saudi builder Binladin appoints turnaround specialists to senior team

Saudi builder Binladin appoints turnaround specialists to senior team
Updated 11 April 2021

Saudi builder Binladin appoints turnaround specialists to senior team

Saudi builder Binladin appoints turnaround specialists to senior team
  • The regional construction sector has been hit hard by the weakening of oil prices since 2014

RIYADH: Binladin International Holding Group (BIHG), the parent company of Saudi Arabia’s biggest builder, has hired two senior executives with a background in corporate turnarounds.
Balaji Prasad has been named group chief financial officer and Roberto Liuzza has been hired as group chief organization excellence officer.
Prasad has a background in debt restructuring, corporate turnaround, business transformation and complex fundraising. He was previously CFO of Abu Dhabi-listed developer Manazel.
Liuzza has also worked on a number of complex turnarounds across various industries, the company said in a statement on Sunday.
The regional construction sector has been hit hard by the weakening of oil prices since 2014 and the associated decline in the real estate sector which has plunged some of the industry’s biggest names into financial distress.
BIHG made a number of other senior appointments over the last year, including Ahmed Al-Sanie as group managing director; Abdulrahman Bajunaid as CEO of real estate; and Samer Khawashki as CEO of investments over the past year.
Established in March 2019, BIHG oversees and manages the affairs of units across its portfolio, including SBG – Saudi Arabia’s largest construction company and one of the world’s largest contractors.

 


Gulf hotels target staycationers with Ramadan price cuts as prices tumble

Gulf hotels target staycationers with Ramadan price cuts as prices tumble
Updated 11 April 2021

Gulf hotels target staycationers with Ramadan price cuts as prices tumble

Gulf hotels target staycationers with Ramadan price cuts as prices tumble
  • Ramadan deals are likely to push prices down further for many in the coming weeks

DUBAI: After one of the toughest years for the hotel industry in living memory, Gulf hoteliers are eyeing Ramadan as a springboard for recovery.
With international travel still severely limited, hotels are looking to attract so-called staycationers with deep discounts and deals during the holy month.

Prices are already historically low in many Gulf cities. The average daily room rate (ADR) at Dubai hotels was $145.90 in the first two months of 2021, down 13 percent from a year earlier, according to data provider STR. In Riyadh they were 11 percent lower at $151.40. Muscat experienced the biggest drop with a 52.5 percent slump to $75.10.

Ramadan deals are likely to push prices down further for many in the coming weeks. The holy month offers a further opportunity for Gulf hotels as families look to take some time off following a challenging year.
Hoteliers, including Raffles and Jumeirah in Dubai, W Abu Dhabi at Yas Island and Hilton Doha the Pearl in Qatar are all offering Ramadan staycation deals, especially for residents.
Wyndham is offering guests 15 to 25 percent off the best available rate when they stay three or more nights and book direct for stays between April 01 and Sept. 30.Accor is also offering discounts of up to 30 percent for stays through May 11.
Other traditional sources of Ramadan revenue will not be available to hotels. Only pilgrims who have been vaccinated or have already recovered from COVID-19 will be allowed to visit Makkah during Ramadan this year, while large gatherings for iftar meals will be limited throughout the region.
“The staycation market is a very useful means of filling demand when borders are closed and has been used with success right around the world,” Simon Allison, CEO of HOFTEL and organizer of this year’s GIOHIS summit in November, told Arab News. “In the end, as the domestic market is relatively limited it is almost inevitable that it will need to be offered discounts.”
However, with room rates already very low, hotels are looking at ways of attracting guests without pushing their margins into the red, such as resort credits.
For instance, Jebel Ali Beach Hotel Dubai is offering between 200 dirhams ($54.46) and 400 dirhams of credit redeemable toward food and beverages for guests booking more expensive rooms, and is only valid for UAE residents. IHG Hotels & Resorts has a staycation deal with free breakfast and dinner at its InterContinental, voco, Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn properties in Saudi Arabia through Sept. 30.
“There’s no doubt that resort hotels and markets are performing much better than business ones,” said Kostas Nikolaidis, an executive at STR. “There’s also a significant difference between a domestic and an international stay. The length of stay, booking window as well as ancillary spending (F&B etc.) is different between an international and a domestic traveler.Hotels have tried to adjust in order to maximize their revenues in various ways.”Discounts are likely to extend way beyond Ramadan into the summer. The Saudi government announced in November 2020 that it would reopen domestic tourism this summer after 80 percent of citizens surveyed said they would rather holiday at home this year.
“Hotels focused on cost-cutting last year, which was inevitable,” said Allison. “Now they are working on staffing up again and getting the best people from a large available labor pool; focusing on sales and marketing strategies and means to differentiate their offering as travel gradually returns.”


Dubai’s non-oil trade tops $321.8 billion in 2020

Dubai’s non-oil trade tops $321.8 billion in 2020
Updated 11 April 2021

Dubai’s non-oil trade tops $321.8 billion in 2020

Dubai’s non-oil trade tops $321.8 billion in 2020
  • Total trade volume went down to 100 million tons, from 109 million tons in 2019
  • Exports rose eight percent to $45.47 billion while imports reached $186.8 billion

DUBAI: Dubai’s non-oil foreign trade reached $321.8 billion (1.185 trillion dirhams) in 2020, 13.5 percent lower than the previous year as the coronavirus pandemic weighed on activity.
Total trade volume dropped to 100 million tons, from 109 million tons in 2019, although shipments received a 6 percent boost in the second half of the year, the Dubai Media Office reported.
Exports rose eight percent to $45.47 billion while imports reached $186.8 billion, and re-exports totaled $89.58 billion.
“The exceptional growth performance of Dubai’s external trade sector reflects the emirate’s impressive resilience and its ability to recover and grow amidst international crises,” Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai and chairman of Dubai Executive Council, said in a statement.
“We were able to quickly renew our momentum of growth and reestablish our global leadership in various sectors.”
He added that the city has set an example for the world in dealing with both the economic and health repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. He further said that Dubai was quickly able to re-establish its global leadership in multiple sectors.
Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, chairman and CEO of Dubai Ports World, meanwhile said: “With the gradual opening of borders, Dubai’s trade volumes started recovering and growing quickly in the second half of 2020.”
“This rebound is now spurring greater growth in 2021. The resumption of trade with Qatar, the start of trade engagement with Israel, the positive spin-offs from hosting EXPO 2020 and the launch of the Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan will all contribute to accelerating the emirate’s growth momentum.”
China maintained its position as Dubai’s largest trading partner in 2020 with $38.66 billion worth of transactions, followed by India with $24.2 billion and the US with $16.6 billion.


PIF’s Noon signs partnerships with Abu Dhabi’s Man City FC

PIF’s Noon signs partnerships with Abu Dhabi’s Man City FC
Updated 11 April 2021

PIF’s Noon signs partnerships with Abu Dhabi’s Man City FC

PIF’s Noon signs partnerships with Abu Dhabi’s Man City FC
  • It will see Noon become the official online sales partner for Manchester City in the Middle East

DUBAI: Noon, an online platform backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and Dubai businessman Mohamed Alabbar, said it had signed a partnership with Manchester City, the English football club owned by Abu Dhabi.
It will see Noon become the official online sales partner for Manchester City in the Middle East.
Stephan Cieplik, a senior vice president at the club said: “The team has impressed us with their ambition, innovation, and passion for the local communities and businesses they serve in the Middle East.”
Noon was launched in the UAE and Saudi Arabia in December 2017 and in Egypt in February 2019. With an initial investment of $1 billion and working from headquarters in Riyadh, Noon said in 2016 that it aims to expand online sales in the region from 2 percent of the total retail market ($3 billion), to 15 percent ($70 billion) within a decade.
Manchester City is an English Premier League club initially founded in 1880. The club was bought by Abu Dhabi United Group (ABUG) in 2008 for a reported £210 million ($287 million) and is now owned by the City Football Group, which is majority owned by ABUG.


Masdar-led consortium starts construction of solar project in Jeddah

Masdar-led consortium starts construction of solar project in Jeddah
Updated 11 April 2021

Masdar-led consortium starts construction of solar project in Jeddah

Masdar-led consortium starts construction of solar project in Jeddah
  • The plant is locared in Third Jeddah Industrial City, 50 kilometers southeast of Jeddah

DUBAI: A consortium led by Abu Dhabi’s Masdar has started construction of a solar power plant in Jeddah, after reaching financial close on the project.

The consortium, which includes France’s EDF Renewables and Saudi Arabia-based Nesma Company, announced it will start construction of the 300-megawatt utility-scale plant that will begin operation next year.

The plant is locared in Third Jeddah Industrial City, 50 kilometers southeast of Jeddah.

“Saudi Arabia is fast developing into a global renewable energy player, and Masdar will continue to work closely with the Saudi government and our partners here to help the Kingdom achieve its clean energy transition,” Masdar chief Mohamed Jameel Al-Ramahi said in a statement.

The Kingdom’s Renewable Energy Project Development Office awarded the consortium the project after it had submitted the most competitive bid of SR60.9 ($16.2) per megawatt hour, the companies said.

The new plant forms part of Saudi Arabia’s clean energy strategy, where it wants to diversify its power mix and aims to generate 50 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman earlier signed seven power purchase agreements for new solar plants in Saudi Arabia following the inauguration of the Sakaka plant.