MICROSOFT FOUNDER AND philanthropist Bill Gates saw the pandemic coming. In a February 28 New England Journal of Medicine article, he warned that "COVID-19 has started behaving a lot like the once-in-a-century pathogen we've been worried about." He called for public health agencies across the board to take steps to slow the virus's spread. He argued for the importance of accelerating work on treatments and vaccines.
At the same time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was slowly--so very slowly--swinging into action. On February 4, the agency formally acknowledged the public emergency and agreed that the situation called for a quicker-than-usual response to entities seeking emergency approval for new COVID -19 diagnostic tests. Nevertheless, it took the FDA almost a whole month to provide guidance on exactly how laboratories and commercial companies could accelerate that process.
By then, private-sector leaders were already putting plans in motion. The firstconfirmedcaseofCOVID-19intheUnitedStates was in January in Washington state, where Gates' philanthropic organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is based. On March 10, the Gates Foundation announced a partnership with MasterCard and Wellcome, a U.K.-based research charity, to commit $ 125 million to a "COVID -19 Therapeutics Accelerator" that hoped to speed up the response by "identifying, assessing, developing, and scaling-up treatments." The private response would turn out to be critical. A group of Seattle doctors had already had to defy the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in order to implement the tests that caught the virus's arrival in America.
On the same day of the Gates Foundation announcement, the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health policy think tank, put together a tracker showing how much private philanthropy was going into the worldwide response. The group calculated that at least $725 million had then been committed by private nonprofits, businesses, and foundations to aid in international relief efforts. Candid, a foundation that helps nonprofits and foundations connect to donors, calculated that $4.3 billion in grants had been funded by early April for coronavirus responses around the world.
Early on, much of the assistance was directed toward China. But as COVID-19 spread everywhere, so did private philanthropy and innovation. As hospitals and health providers ran out of face masks (thanks in part, again, to FDA regulations...