The outbreak of the novel coronavirus and its associated illness COVID-19 has caught many organizations, as well as the federal government, off guard. Critics have said that the government’s response to the crisis has not been adequate. In the space left by government inaction, several well-known tech billionaire philanthropists have stepped in to provide better services and fuel research.
Two of the people that have made the biggest impact are Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. While both of these philanthropists are focusing primarily on serving the people in their local areas, their efforts have made it easier to get tested for the virus.
How Mark Zuckerberg Is Fueling Testing Capacity in California
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is a philanthropic organization operated by billionaire Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan. In affiliation with CZI Biohub, CZI purchased two additional clinical diagnostic machines, essentially quadrupling the ability to test for and diagnose cases in the San Francisco Bay Area. This region has faced many difficulties in terms of tracking the spread of the virus due to a testing bottleneck, so the new machines were a very welcome addition to the efforts of healthcare officials working toward getting more accurate numbers and delivering necessary care to patients with COVID-19.
While philanthropy in general has received criticism in recent years for supplanting the role of government in some instances, people like Zuckerberg can play a critical role when it comes to helping in the management of a public health crisis.
Bill Gates Improves Testing in Seattle and Funds Treatment Search
The Seattle area was also hit with several of the earliest cases in the United States. Under the direction of billionaire Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded a version of testing kits that can be used at home and sent safely to a lab for analysis. This sort of technology makes it possible to self-quarantine before a positive result and reduce the risk of exposure to healthcare workers. People who test positive can then be treated through telehealth or transported safely to a quarantined unit if necessary.
Home testing kits have the potential to reduce the spread of the virus and minimize the impact of COVID-19 on Seattle and perhaps the rest of the country. Such interventions from charitable organizations have been welcome in the wake of the government’s slow response to increasing testing.
The Gates’ are helping in other ways besides increasing capacity for testing in Seattle. Recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation teamed up with Wellcome and the Mastercard Impact Fund to form the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator. With a combined $125 million in funding, researchers will work toward scalable treatments for COVID-19.
Currently, no immunotherapies or broad antivirals have been approved for the empiric treatment of emerging virus pathogens, and unfortunately, the scientific research world moves very slowly.
The new accelerator, in conjunction with the World Health Organization and the public and private sectors, will facilitate collaboration and communication to speed discoveries and keep research from being repeated unnecessarily.
Funding from philanthropists can help bolster government efforts and drive collaboration, leading to quicker discoveries and streamlined interventions. The immediate intention of the accelerator is to find affordable solutions for COVID-19 that can be used around the world. Early efforts are looking at the efficacy of existing antivirals alongside potential novel solutions.
Gates and Zuckerberg Work to Mobilize Mutually Developed Technology
Gates and Zuckerberg have also joined forces in their mutual crusade against the novel coronavirus. The two partnered very early in the outbreak of the virus to fund researchers in Cambodia. With the support of these two philanthropists, scientists quickly sequenced the full genome of the specific coronavirus that causes COVID-19, which is what made testing for the disease much easier. Plus, the Cambodian team made a public version of the IDSeq tool (unveiled in 2018 by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and developed along with the Gates Foundation) so that scientists can study the entire genome of the virus, particularly in the context of outbreaks occurring across the world. Making this data publicly available helps track any mutations in the virus, which can point to clues toward treatment and also help predict the virulence of the disease.
Other Major Philanthropists around the World Step up
Other philanthropists, such as Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, are getting involved as well. At the end of January, Ma donated more than $14 million toward the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. He divided this gift among two Chinese government organizations working on the issue, as well as the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Australia.
The richest man in Hong Kong, Li Ka-Shing, donated $100 million in February to help medical workers in Wuhan through the Red Cross Society of China. This money was earmarked to provide supplies and other necessities for treating patients and keep healthcare workers safe from the virus.
As Italy has the highest number of cases outside of China, Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani donated more than $1.4 million to help fight the outbreak there.