Bill Gates on COVID vaccine, climate change, and the future of electric vehicles
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The world could use some big breakthroughs — a vaccine to combat coronavirus and innovations to mitigate climate change among them. The Microsoft Corp. co-founder speaks with Bloomberg’s Erik Schatzker about his passion for both, the nightmare that is misinformation, and the difference between Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.
ERIK SCHATZKER: President Trump has made no secret of his desire to see a COVID-19 vaccine soon, ideally before the November election. How worried are you about politics hijacking the approval process?
BILL GATES: Well, that would be a tragedy. Any suggestion that a politician helped create the vaccine or it’s faster because of a politician is a very dangerous thing. We saw with the completely bungled plasma statements that when you start pressuring people to say optimistic things, they go completely off the rails. The FDA lost a lot of credibility there.
Do you still trust the Food and Drug Administration?
Historically, just like the CDC was viewed as the best in the world, the FDA had that same reputation as a top-notch regulator. But there have been some cracks with some of the things they’ve said.
What about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?
The CDC is largely being written out of the picture. You have people at the White House who aren’t epidemiologists saying what a great job they’ve done. It’s no longer a set of experts. And the CDC actually did make some mistakes, especially the way they thought about testing.
One of the big risks in politicization is public confidence. Polls show a third of Americans will refuse to get vaccinated and a majority of Americans believe a vaccine is being rushed. Has the damage already been done?
I hope not. These companies are very professional, and the benefits of a vaccine are very dramatic, not just on the health front, but on the economic front, on the education front. We need to bring this pandemic to a close. Thank goodness we have this private-sector expertise that we can shape into a public good that gets to everybody on the planet. Some people may take a wait-and-see attitude, but I do think over time we will be able to get to the majority of the population and get to a level where transmission slows down very dramatically
Given the accelerated timeline on which these vaccines are being developed, how confident are you that they’ll be not only effective but safe as well?
There’s not some big profit upside for many of the companies involved, including the ones that will have the most scalable, low-cost vaccines. We’re all going to be looking at the data. But a safe vaccine, I think, is very likely to come out of this R&D work.
Rich countries are spending billions of dollars to put their citizens at the front of the line for a vaccine. Where does that leave the rest of the world?
This is a very important point because, whether it’s from a humanitarian point of view or a strategic leadership point of view, or just preventing the epidemic coming back to the U.S. again and again, we need a plan to get the vaccine out to the entire world. The U.S. has been really strong at funding R&D in trials. The thing that the U.S. hasn’t done is participate in coming up with factories and procurement money for the rest of the world. Somewhere in the US$8 billion to US$10 billion range would fund these international activities.
You’ve talked about building a coalition of governments, of businesses, and of development banks to organize and finance vaccinations for the world’s poor countries. How realistic is that?
The only country that hasn’t shown up for those discussions is the United States. Congress has always made the U.S. a leader on global health. We eradicated smallpox, took on HIV. People are still expecting us to fill that vacuum. Other countries, including all the European leaders, have stepped forward with generous contributions. But it’s not enough without the U.S. being there. We need this to all come together, and the sooner the better. The world’s not used to this vacuum of leadership.
I’m assuming you’ve approached the Trump administration for support on this global manufacturing and distribution plan. How responsive has the U.S. government been so far?
I’m talking to Republicans and Democrats, Congress and the executive branch. When it looked like there would be a supplemental bill, it looked like at least US$4 billion for the vaccine was going to get in there. Now it’s not clear if there will be a supplemental bill, which is unfortunate. When we talk about ending the U.S. epidemic, that global piece has to be part of the overall picture. You literally have to spend billions to save trillions. It’ll be the highest-impact part of whatever allocation gets made.
The Gates Foundation has documented the economic catastrophe that COVID-19 has produced. What if we’re looking at a K-shaped recovery, with some people emerging from the pandemic on top and others even weaker and falling further behind?
As long as the disease is out there, a lot of small businesses will be disproportionately affected. The inequity of this — whether it’s between citizens in this country, blue collar vs. white collar, Blacks experiencing a higher sickness rate than others — poor countries can’t borrow money and spend money like the U.S. and other rich countries have. Almost every dimension of inequity has been accentuated here. We’ve got to bring this thing to a close and get back to where we were.
The conspiracy theorists who believe that you helped to create and spread the coronavirus might be easy to dismiss if there weren’t so many of them. Has that notoriety become an impediment to your efforts or the foundation’s work?
It’s so crazy to suggest the opposite. We make vaccines, and that has saved millions of lives. To somehow say that a vaccine is malign or that the deaths aren’t really taking place, it’s surprising to me how interesting that is, and it spreads far more quickly than the truth. How should these social media platforms try to avoid being the source of these weirdly interesting falsehoods? That’s a debate or discussion we’re going to have to continue to have.
One casualty of the breakdown in America's relationship with China is collaboration on virus research and virus containment. Do you share the mistrust of China’s intentions?
I do think there are cases where we can have a win-win, on solving medical problems, on working together on climate change innovation. I’d hate to see what some people talk about, this complete decoupling. That would be a lose-lose.
There are overlaps between the challenge of fighting the pandemic and fighting climate change. What steps can government take to address both at the same time?
The pandemic illustrates that government didn’t look out for us despite the warnings that were out there. Climate fits that same paradigm. Sadly, the problem gets worse and worse, and there isn’t a solution like a vaccine where you can spend tens of billions of dollars and bring it to a close. No, climate change is much harder. The damage that will be done every year will be greater than what we’ve seen during this pandemic.
Joe Biden has an ambitious and expensive plan to combat climate change and shift the U.S. energy supply to renewables. What do you think of his approach?
Ignoring climate change is a gigantic mistake. It’s a very tough problem to solve, and it’s one that you have to start many decades ahead of when you want that solution deployed, because you’re talking about changing most of the physical economy of the world. Transport, industry, buildings, electricity, all of those things—and agriculture—contribute to emissions. For many of these sources of emissions, we have no solutions.
How realistic is Biden’s goal of 100 per cent clean energy by 2035?
I think that will be very difficult to achieve, but it’s a great goal. Without innovation, a lot of innovation, we won’t be able to get there.
The Biden plan has a US$2 trillion price tag. That’s a lot of money to spend in four years. Do you have confidence that the U.S. government can do that responsibly and effectively?
The part that I understand the best is R&D, which would use up some of that money. If we spent at the same level we do for health research through the NIH [National Institutes of Health], which is about US$35 billion a year, if we had a national institute for energy and climate, I can see how that money would make a dramatic difference and create all sorts of businesses that would be able to export their innovations.
Is taxpayer money best spent deploying existing clean technologies, or is it better spent investing in new tech?
Only innovation aimed at the hard problems really gives us a chance of getting to zero. We’ve been focused on the things that are still hard but not superhard, like passenger cars.
Clearly climate is on the ballot in November. What else is at stake for you in the election?
You have quite a contrast. I don’t speak about who I’m going to vote for because of my Gates Foundation work. We’re committed to working with any administration. We’ve had great relationships with both parties. I do think on climate, you would get more focus and more expertise from Biden than from the current administration.
So you won’t endorse any candidates?
I think my beliefs are pretty clear, but I want to save my voice in terms of influencing people.
One of the things common to both the pandemic and climate change is a growing mistrust of science. Where will this country end up if voters don’t believe what scientific data show and what scientific models indicate?
No one knows all of science. I’m a perennial student, and the percentage I know is very small. We should pick somebody who believes in experts and can admit mistakes and is willing to come up with a long-term plan. Just saying, “We’re a selfish country,” might work for some things; but for others that require global cooperation, it’s a huge problem.
You’re a prominent investor in energy technology. Where do you see the best prospect right now for genuine breakthroughs?
The breakthroughs are all going to be high-risk. I’ve lost a lot of money on battery companies. I think nuclear fission shouldn’t be counted out because next-generation designs can be very safe and very economic. That would fit into the picture very well. Even things that are kind of far-out, like fusion, we should continue to invest in because the potential there is very large. We’re short about two dozen great innovations. How do we improve how we make steel? Or cement? Not easy problems. But if you back 20 or 30 approaches to each of these problems, your chance of success is actually pretty high, particularly if you build an initial market and become a totally price-competitive product, like car batteries or solar panels.
Storage would clearly be a game-changer as far as the shift to renewable energies such as wind and solar are concerned. Are we any closer to what you’ve called the storage miracle?
No. Just take Tokyo over a two-week period when there’s a typhoon. None of the renewable sources are available. That’s more energy than all the batteries the world has ever built times a large number. For car batteries, yes, we’ve done a great job and the kind of incremental improvement that is clearly going to come along will allow passenger electric cars to go from the few percent they are today to very mainstream over the next decade or two. That’s supergood news. That’s only a piece of the transport problem. Planes are much, much harder than passenger cars. When we look at storage, we should acknowledge that for grid-level storage, there’s a very good chance we’ll never have that breakthrough. We have to pursue alternate paths to having a completely clean, reliable, dramatically enlarged electricity supply.
You’ve described electric cars as the “easy part” of the green economy. Is that to say there isn’t perhaps as much value to companies such as Tesla or Nikola as the stock market suggests?
The fact that Elon Musk and others did a great electric car is a huge contribution to the climate change effort. He did it with quality. It’s still a little premium-priced, but he’s got that initial market, and that market’s going to grow, and other car companies, seeing his success, will come in. The question of what’s the profit per car and what’s the market share of Tesla, that’s for stock people. That’s not a climate change issue at all. The difficulty on the other areas is much higher. I’m not trivializing in any way the need to raise the market share of EVs, but on a relative basis, that’s far easier than the industrial economy, where our progress is very small. We are grossly underinvested in these hard areas.
Elon Musk has built an electric car company. He’s built reusable rockets. He’s even an innovator in tunneling technology. People have described him as the new Steve Jobs. You knew Jobs. Is Elon Musk the new Steve Jobs?
If you know people personally, that kind of gross oversimplification seems strange. Elon’s more of a hands-on engineer. Steve was a genius at design and picking people and marketing. You wouldn’t walk into a room and confuse them with each other.
Do you find yourself as impressed by the things people are doing today on the cutting edge of industrial technology as you might have been 20 years ago?
Innovation today is more rapid. The tools of digital technology that people like myself and Steve Jobs were lucky enough to be involved in building, they’ve actually allowed sharing of information and global cooperation on tough problems to be far better. We’re seeing that with the speed we’re creating these vaccines. We couldn’t have done that 10 years ago. With climate, we need all of that increased speed and more. We need policies, we need more R&D money, we need more risk capital because of all those hard areas. But yes, innovation’s accelerating, and that’s the only reason you can be optimistic about climate change. This interview took place as part of the Bloomberg Green Festival.