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Can’t let rich nations buy up initial Covid-19 vaccines: Melinda Gates

Ensuring wide distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine will be critical and a key concern is initial doses being cornered by high-income countries, Melinda Gates, cofounder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told ET’s Teena Thacker in a phone interview. Commenting on the Goalkeeper’s 2020 report released by the foundation on Tuesday, Gates, 56, said Covid had resulted in 25 years of progress on vaccinations being wiped out in 25 weeks. She expressed concern about tuberculosis spreading in India apart from spikes in maternal mortality and vulnerable sections descending into extreme poverty. At the same time, she lauded the Indian government’s cash-transfer programme for the disadvantaged. Gates will be one of the speakers at the ET Women’s Forum 2020. Edited excerpts:

Indicators such as rates of routine vaccination and global poverty have seen a rapid fall and, as the report says, we are back below levels in the 1990s on many vaccination programmes.

Yes, so the 25 years of progress that has been made on vaccinations unfortunately has been erased in 25 weeks, and the drop in vaccination rates is deeply concerning because we know it’s vaccines that keep families and children safe. Measles, for instance, is a highly communicable disease, and, you know, 12 to 18 people get it for every one person that gets it, so to not have measles vaccine campaigns going forward is devastating for communities, and it’s why we’ve got to get back to some of these basic health services, like vaccines.

What does it mean for countries like India?
We’re already seeing some of the tolls, but you’re going to see things like tuberculosis… there are millions of cases of tuberculosis in India. Even more will go undiagnosed, which means that you’re going to get a spread of more tuberculosis in the community. I’m quite concerned about the drop into extreme poverty. We know more people are dropping below the extreme poverty level of $1.90 a day. I do think the government of India’s cash-transfer payments have been very wise — the fact they’ve put the money in the hands of women, they’ve put it in women’s digital mobile wallets, if a woman has a digital wallet on her phone, and they’ve made sure to use the self-help groups, like Jeevika (the Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project), to make sure that the cash-transfer payments get out into the hands of women, particularly in rural areas, who don’t have access to a cellphone. Yes, it’s deeply concerning. I mean, we know from ebola when it hit the four countries in Africa, the four most-affected countries, we had a shadow pandemic of maternal mortality, because women don’t go into the health clinic to deliver their baby, or they’re not welcomed. And so I think you’re going to have a severe rise in maternal mortality in India during this time.

How much of a push, both financial and in terms of manpower, will be needed to regain lost ground?
I think that has to be looked at country by country, but I think we’re seeing that we’re going to have a huge loss in the global economy of $12 trillion, but luckily we’re seeing $18 trillion of stimulus going in, but it’s going to mean making sure that people know where they can still go for health services, where they can still go for universal health coverage. One of the things I think India has going for it is the ASHA (accredited social health activist) workers. The fact that they’ve already been able to go out and very quickly give messages to people in the community about Covid-19, give messages still about clean and safe birth, give messages about, okay, if you’ve got this issue where do you go in the health system, I think that infrastructure that India has built up is going to really benefit the country.

What could delay vaccine supplies? Do you think India’s vaccine goals are too ambitious?
I think a vaccine needs to go through all of the hurdles of good trials so that we make sure that it’s a safe and efficacious vaccine, but I think the pharmaceutical companies are absolutely doing that, and I think you see them moving slowly through phase one, phase two, phase three trials. We just saw a vaccine trial stopped, the

AstraZeneca

one, because of an adverse event. That’s exactly what needs to happen when you’re trialing a vaccine. So I do think we will get a safe and efficacious one, hopefully early in the new year, 2021, and then the issue will really be distribution. And one of the biggest concerns we have as a foundation, and as a global set of partners, is you don’t want the high-income countries to buy up the first doses. So there’s a model now out from Northeastern University that says that if the high-income countries purchase the first two billion doses you’re going to have double the amount of deaths around the world. So it means we need to make sure that the tech transfer happens quickly to places like Serum Institute in India — our foundation has a great relationship with them — so that Serum can then be able to produce hundreds of millions of doses for the Indian population, and then for the rest of the world.

How was your experience working in India with the vaccine makers?
We’ve had incredibly good relationships with vaccine companies in India, and in particular Serum Institute, and I think it’s because of the vaccines and because of the government’s willingness to look at things like rotavirus — when there was a new rotavirus vaccine out, they made sure it eventually got out to the most remote, rural areas, and that’s why more children are alive, because most children die of pneumonia and diarrhea. So getting the rotavirus vaccine out for diarrhea, getting the pneumonia vaccine out for kids, it has literally saved lives. India has a good vaccine system, so when this vaccine is ready they’ll be able to put it straight through there and again they’ll be able to use the auxiliary nurse midwives to really help with giving the vaccines. Then they can use the ASHAs to get the message out: The vaccine’s here; it’s available; here’s where you go for it. So the system is there. It’s a high-quality system. I’m optimistic that once India gets the vaccine, and Serum is able to produce it, it will get out into the population, and that’s going to make a huge difference in terms of the country being able to get back to work and get back on the economic track that it wants to be on.

How has your experience been working with the government?
We’ve had a very positive experience with the government.

Wadhwani Institute of AI testing tool to detect Covid-19 through cough patterns

Mumbai: Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence has built a tool to detect Covid-19 among people through analysis of cough sound patterns, which it says could potentially be a low cost solution to mass screening in remote corners of the country.

The tool could also be tweaked to analyse through cough the severity or progress made by patients of diseases such as tuberculosis.

The organisation backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been testing the artificial intelligence based tool in Bihar and Odisha to detect whether inpiduals are COVID positive by studying their cough.

Inpiduals at clinics cough into a phone with an app that studies the sound signals of the cough and determines whether the person is potentially COVID positive.

The larger motivation behind the use of AI for detection is to make it easier and accessible for larger sects of people, said said Padmanabhan Anandan, the Chief Executive Officer of Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

“The primary healthcare system in India is severely stretched…we realised that this is a place where AI can help,” he said.

The organisation said on Wednesday that it had secured a provisional US patent for its AI tool. Its usage is currently only focussed on clinics and not in homes because of the need of specific conditions to be followed while conducting the test and to avoid false positives.

“the long-term plan (is to extend to other diseases)…. One of the reasons we did this is we thought it would be useful for other infectious diseases and TB. The algorithm will be different, but the experience of trying to do this with cough will I think set us up in trying to do this for TB and other issues,”

The idea behind the initiative is to help health care and civic authorities speed up testing by filtering out patients with Covid-19-like symptoms but without the infection. The organisation partnered with Norway India Partnership Initiative (NIPI), Doctors for you (DFY), AIIMS Jodhpur, Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) to collect data from 3,621 inpiduals across 4 states including Bihar, Odisha, Rajasthan and Maharashtra to create a large dataset of cough sounds.

It also used open-source non-Covid cough datasets to collect 31,909 sound segments. Of these 27,116 sounds were non-cough respiratory sounds such as wheezes, crackles, breathing or human speech, and the remaining 4,793 were cough sounds.

MacKenzie Scott, Melinda Gates give $40 million to gender equality groups

An initiative from philanthropists Melinda French Gates, MacKenzie Scott and the family foundation of billionaire Lynn Schusterman awarded $40 million Thursday to four promoting gender equality projects in tech, higher education, caregiving and minority communities.

The projects are the winners of The Equality Can’t Wait Challenge, a funding competition launched in June 2020 with the goal of expanding women’s power and influence in the United States. According to an announcement released Thursday by Lever for Change, an affiliate of the MacArthur Foundation that managed the challenge, the awardees, selected from a pool of more than 500 proposals submitted from across the country, will receive $10 million each.

Equality Can’t Wait will fund: Building Women’s Equality through Strengthening the Care Infrastructure, a project by a coalition of organizations working on the societal perceptions of caregiving; Changing the Face of Tech, an initiative to offer women more opportunities in the tech sector; Girls Inc.’s Project Accelerate, which aims to help young women through college and career entry; and The Future is Indigenous Womxn, an initiative to support businesses owned by Native American women.

The three funders have all given contributions to gender equality initiatives in the past. And French Gates, whose investment and incubation company Pivotal Ventures hosted the competition, has pledged to spend $1 billion toward such projects in the U.S., citing low rates of women in leadership positions. That money is slated to be spent through Pivotal, which unlike a traditional charity, is able to invest in high-risk, for-profit entities and become more politically involved. It also doesn’t have to disclose information on all the groups it funds.

French Gates said in a statement Thursday that “we can break the patterns of history“ and advance gender equality if there’s a commitment to support organizations, like the awardees, “that are ready to lift up women and girls.” While Scott, who’s given more than $8 billion in three rounds of funding since last year, praised the awardees for having “strong teams working on the front lines and from within communities to help women build power in their lives and careers.”

Separately, additional funding of $8 million will be split between two finalists: one project working to combat physical, sexual and other forms of violence inflicted by romantic partners and another aiming to help young women become more politically active.

Nicole Bates, Pivotal Ventures’ director of strategic partnerships and initiatives, declined to say how Scott and Scott’s husband, Dan Jewett, became involved with the funding competition, but noted it was “exciting to join forces and make a collective statement about the importance of gender equality.”

“Those of us who share values, particularly in gender, we see each other and we respect each other’s work,” Bates said.

French Gates also serves as a co-chair and trustee at The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest charitable foundation in the world. The foundation said earlier this month that French Gates would continue in her role after her porce from Bill Gates. However, if after two years, the two decide they cannot continue in their roles, she will resign.