How Bill Gates and Partners Used Their Clout to Control the Global Covid Response — with Little Oversight
By ERIN BANCO | ASHLEIGH FURLONG and LENNART PFAHLER
Four health organizations, working closely together, spent almost $10 billion on responding to Covid across the world. But they lacked the scrutiny of governments, and fell short of their own goals, a POLITICO and WELT investigation found.
When Covid-19 struck, the governments of the world weren’t prepared.
From America to Europe to Asia, they veered from minimizing the threat to closing their borders in ill-fated attempts to quell a viral spread that soon enveloped the world. While the most powerful nations looked inward, four non-governmental global health organizations began making plans for a life-or-death struggle against a virus that would know no boundaries.
What followed was a steady, almost inexorable shift in power from the overwhelmed governments to a group of non-governmental organizations, according to a seven-month investigation by POLITICO journalists based in the U.S. and Europe and the German newspaper WELT. Armed with expertise, bolstered by contacts at the highest levels of Western nations and empowered by well-grooved relationships with drug makers, the four organizations took on roles often played by governments — but without the accountability of governments.
While nations were still debating the seriousness of the pandemic, the groups identified potential vaccine makers and targeted investments in the development of tests, treatments and shots. And they used their clout with the World Health Organization to help create an ambitious worldwide distribution plan for the dissemination of those Covid tools to needy nations, though it would ultimately fail to live up to its original promises.
The four organizations had worked together in the past, and three of them shared a common history. The largest and most powerful was the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the largest philanthropies in the world. Then there was Gavi, the global vaccine organization that Gates helped to found to inoculate people in low-income nations, and the Wellcome Trust, a British research foundation with a multibillion dollar endowment that had worked with the Gates Foundation in previous years. Finally, there was the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, the international vaccine research and development group that Gates and Wellcome both helped to create in 2017.
(Left to right) Gavi CEO Seth Berkley, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Gates Foundation Co-founder Bill Gates, and former President Donald Trump.
Civil society organizations active in poorer nations, including Doctors Without Borders, expressed discomfort with the notion that Western-dominated groups, staffed by elite teams of experts, would be helping guide life-and-death decisions affecting people in poorer nations. Those tensions only increased when the Gates Foundation opposed efforts to waive intellectual property rights, a move that critics saw as protecting the interests of pharmaceutical giants over people living poorer nations.
“What makes Bill Gates qualified to be giving advice and advising the U.S. government on where they should be putting the tremendous resources?” asked Kate Elder, senior vaccines policy adviser for the Doctors Without Borders’ Access Campaign.
Bill Gates (center), shown above with Britain’s Prince Charles (right) and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) in November 2021, co-founded one of the largest philanthropies in the world
The overtures worked. While President Joe Biden’s efforts to obtain an additional $5 billion in funding for the administration’s international work combatting the virus were floundering in Congress, he still managed to slip $500 million for CEPI into his budget proposal — $100 million a year for five years.
The money, which has yet to be approved, would help what most global health experts agree is an important cause, not only in humanitarian terms but in helping prevent poorer nations from becoming breeding grounds for new variants. And most believe that the Gates Foundation and the other groups deserve credit not only for their work to help save lives but for being almost the only game in town with sufficient scope to fight a pandemic.
But the groups’ extensive politicking and financial might in the U.S. and Europe helped to enable them to direct the international response to the most important health event of the past century at a time when governments were caught flat-footed, according to the investigation.
POLITICO and WELT examined meeting minutes as well as thousands of pages of financial disclosures and tax documents, which revealed that the groups have spent nearly $10 billion since 2020 — the same amount as the leading U.S. agency charged with fighting Covid abroad. It is one of the first comprehensive accountings of expenditures by global health organizations on the global fight against the pandemic.
Now, critics are raising significant questions about the equity and effectiveness of the group’s response to the pandemic — and the serious limitations of outsourcing the pandemic response to unelected, privately-funded groups.
“I think we should be deeply concerned,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor who specializes in public-health law. “Putting it in a very crass way, money buys influence. And this is the worst kind of influence. Not just because it’s money — although that’s important, because money shouldn’t dictate policy — but also, because it’s preferential access, behind closed doors.”
Gostin said that such power, even if propelled by good intentions and expertise, is “anti-democratic, because it’s extraordinarily non-transparent, and opaque” and “leaves behind ordinary people, communities and civil society.”
COVAX set the aim of delivering 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021. By September of that year, it had only delivered 319 million doses.
Although COVAX significantly accelerated the delivery of doses later in 2021 and in 2022, governments have struggled to get shots into arms. As of August 2022, only about 20 percent of Africans were vaccinated — a dangerously low percentage — according to the Africa CDC.
The leaders of the groups say that they were unable to meet their goals largely because wealthy, Western governments were slow to step up and make available the huge tranches of vaccine and therapeutics that were needed to protect the world. The groups say they provided a crucial voice for the suffering and needs of poorer nations, without which the progress may have been far slower.
“The Gates Foundation focused on supporting a global response that would ensure low- and middle-income countries had affordable, equitable access to the best data and tools available to tackle the crisis,” Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation, said in a statement. “In some areas we saw successes. On the most critical issue of equitable vaccine access, the world as a whole failed as high-income countries initially monopolized available supply.” The foundation declined to make Gates available for comment.
On the struggle to deliver vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries on time, Seth Berkley, the CEO of Gavi, said in an interview that the organization actually met one of its original targets of distributing 950 million doses by the end of 2021 to low-income countries, even though it failed to deliver on one of its original promises to distribute 2 billion doses. (COVAX delivered the 950 million doses by January 2022.)
“It’s very easy to sit there outside and to criticize what we’re doing. What we need to do is to be evaluated fairly based upon the actions we took at the time with the knowledge we had at the time,” Berkley said.
A spokesperson for CEPI put it this way: “While there is much that we can improve upon, it would be inaccurate to apportion all the blame for the failures of the global response to the very organizations that did more than anyone else to try and solve the problems of vaccine supply and inequity.”
”The challenge we faced was the need to bake in access to vaccines for poor countries right at the point when companies were able to sell promising product to the highest bidder,” the spokesperson said.
Jeremy Farrar, the Wellcome Trust director, struck a similar note. “Comprehensive pandemic preparedness and response requires the sort of funding and international cooperation that only governments can muster,” he said.
Farrar, however, defended the ACT-A partnership as “the best mechanism we have for delivering lifesaving Covid-19 tools across the world.”
“Before ACT-A was set up, there was no formal mechanism in place to coordinate and accelerate the development, production and equitable access to Covid-19 interventions globally,” he said. “While ACT-A may not be perfect … the global response would have been poorer and far more fragmented without it.”
The POLITICO and WELT investigation found, however, that ACT-A’s structure diminished accountability. ACT-A representatives set funding priorities and campaigned for donations. But the money — $23 billion in total — went directly to the entities involved in the initiative, such as Gavi and CEPI. Although ACT-A’s website keeps track of how much money was raised, it is nearly impossible to tell exactly where all of it went.
Based on each organization’s individual Covid database, it is not possible to delineate exactly how the groups spent the money raised through ACT-A. It is also difficult to determine in the organization’s grants and investment data how much they donated specifically for ACT-A programming. For example, the organizations do not use “ACT-A” or similar terminology in their descriptions of their grants and investments.
“In theory, I think that was a great idea,” said Gayle Smith, who led the U.S. State Department’s global Covid-19 response last year, referring to ACT-A. But she questioned its accountability.
“In practice … there was no single director,” Smith said. “Who’s the big boss of this whole enterprise? In a global emergency like this, we need to be able to get the countermeasures to everyone everywhere as quickly as possible.”
Bruce Aylward, who coordinates the work of the ACT-Accelerator at the WHO, said ACT-A was purposely set up with a decentralized structure in order to cut down on bureaucracy. He said that each agency was in charge of their own accounting and solidifying agreements directly with donors.
Smith and others closely involved in the global Covid fight say there should have been a stronger hand at the tiller.
When vaccine doses started flowing into COVAX, many poor countries and provinces were ill-equipped to handle them. And during the long delays, many potential beneficiaries lost faith in the global health system.
“I think that if we had had the vaccine earlier the coverage would have been much, much, much better,” said Stephen Bordotsiah, the municipal director of health services in the Bolgatanga region of Ghana, which received significant doses from COVAX.
Aylward blamed any of ACT-A’s deficiencies on “factors that were beyond the control of the accelerator,” he said, including a lack of government financing for distribution of Covid tools to low-income countries. “Every politician stood up there and said all the right things. They wanted to do the right things,” Aylward said. “We got to create the enabling environment to let them do that.”
Now, the four groups are spending millions of dollars to lobby the U.S. and EU to embrace their priorities for the next pandemic, some of which include strengthening local health systems. Other initiatives involve investing more money in research and development, hoping to create next-generation vaccines and expanding surveillance networks across the globe.
Meanwhile, many global health specialists question whether the groups are capable of performing the rigorous post-mortems necessary to build a stronger global response system for the future.
“No one’s actually holding these actors to account,” said Sophie Harman, professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London. “And they’re the ones that are really shaping our ability to respond to pandemics.”
Each of the four organizations said they are doing at least some internal reflection of their Covid work.
CEPI is wrapping up an assessment of its work over the past five years, including on Covid, and plans to publish it in full in September. Representatives for the Gates Foundation and Wellcome said their respective organizations have completed internal reviews, though no formal publication of those findings exist on the groups’ websites. Gavi has also commissioned an outside firm to conduct a review of COVAX and plans to publish its findings. It’s unclear when that report will be made public. The group published a general document about lessons learned from Covid on its website on Wednesday.
Representatives of ACT-A said the consortium reviewed its Covid work following the publishing of the Dalberg report in 2021. It addressed its recommendations and said how it would improve in a strategic planning document published on its website in October 2021. It is also tracking that work internally, a spokesperson for ACT-A said.