Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Bill Gates said that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has outpaced the world’s distribution of vaccines in spreading immunity to the virus.
Speaking at the 2022 Munich Security Conference on Friday, Gates, who has spent years warning about the threat posed by viral pandemics, urged health officials to do better the next time a similar threat emerges.
“Sadly, the virus itself – particularly the variant called Omicron – is a type of vaccine,” said Gates. “That is, it creates both B-cell and T-cell immunity, and it’s done a better job of getting out to the world population than we have with vaccines,” he said, CNBC reported.
Gates was asked about global progress in “beating COVID-19” during the panel, which he attended alongside Canada’s foreign affairs minister Melany Joly, Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign affairs minister, and Comfort Ero, CEO of the International Crisis Group. World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus delivered the introduction.
The billionaire and tech magnate credited the spread of the Omicron variant for immunizing populations naturally in some parts of the world.
“If you do sero surveys in countries you get well over 80% of people have been exposed either to the vaccine or to various variants,” said Gates, referring to the type of survey that gauges the prevalence of disease in a population.
“And so, you know, what that does is that it means the chance of severe disease which is mainly associated with being elderly and having obesity or diabetes, those risks are now dramatically reduced because of that infection exposure,” said Gates, referring to how natural immunity had cut down on the severity of cases.
“And it’s sad we didn’t do a great job on therapeutics. Only here, two years in, do we have a good therapeutic. Vaccines took us two years to be in oversupply. Today, there are more vaccines than there is demand for vaccines,” he said, noting that it wasn’t true at the start of the pandemic.
“Next time, we should make it more like six months, which certainly some of the standardized platform approaches including MRNA would allow us to do that,” said Gates. “It took us a lot longer this time than it should’ve.”
Gates’ remarks come weeks after the World Health Organization warned that it was dangerous to assume the Omicron variant would mark the end of the pandemic’s most acute phase. The organization’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that “globally, the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge.”
Gates warned, “We'll have another pandemic,” though noting that “It will be a different pathogen next time.”
Ultimately, the billionaire said that he hoped a “new generation of vaccines” capable of dealing with entire families of respiratory viruses, including influenza and coronaviruses, could come within “the next decade” if there was sufficient “R&D dollars” dedicated to the research.