What do you get after trying to prepare people for an infectious disease pandemic? How about being accused of causing a pandemic when it actually occurs?
Over the past decade, Bill Gates has been warning about the lack of preparation and systems in place to deal with infectious disease threats that could lead to a pandemic. Two years ago, I covered for Forbes some of these warnings. Now that the world is actually in the midst of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, take a wild guess as to whom some conspiracy theorists are now blaming for the pandemic?
Hint, the answer rhymes with chill dates. Yep, some people on social media have been accusing Gates of starting the severe acute respiratory syndrome–coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2) pandemic. This is after Gates, the billionaire Microsoft co-founder turned philanthropist, has spent much of the second act of his career initiating and supporting efforts to prevent and control infectious diseases via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has funded some of our PHICOR team’s computer modeling research efforts to improve product distribution and disease control. This is after Gates has on multiple occasions pushed for more awareness about the possibility of a pandemic and more efforts to prevent this possibility, such as in this 2015 TED talk:
Yet, now conspiracy theorists are claiming that Gates somehow created this pandemic. Isn’t this like blaming someone for causing a heart attack after he or she has warned you for years about such a possibility?
Just look at what happened after Gates posted this photo on Instagram:
Accompanying this photo was this statement, “Thank you to all of the health care workers who are making heroic efforts to test and treat patients across the United States and the world.” OK, seems like a nice and needed statement, thanking health care workers for all sacrifices that they are making to care for COVID-19 patients and help everyone.
Ah, but then came the comments. For example, @realcandaceowens said, “Looks like your #coronavirus fame has backfired, hardcore. Going to have to pass on any vaccines you’re cooking up as well— but I do wish you well.” Then @thedorianyates wrote, “One day you will answer for your crimes …if you desire population reduction why don’t you start with yourself and your children ..who are not vaccinated.” There were various anti-vaccination messages and even suggestions that Gates wants to put microchips in people to track them. Again, all of this after Gates posted no more than a thank-you-health-care-workers message. Isn’t that like trying to punch a person in the face after he or she says thank you to someone else?
Furthermore, the messages didn’t really provide much evidence behind their claims. Where is the evidence that Gates “desires” population reduction or hasn’t had his children vaccinated? Gates has contributed substantially to the development and delivery of vaccines around the world. These vaccines continue to prevent potential life-threatening diseases such as measles and polio, which would be the opposite of “population reduction.” After all, without such vaccines how else could the spread of these infectious pathogens be prevented? By implementing social distancing measures forever? By saying, “stay inside indefinitely, so that you can flatten these five curves.” Yeah, that would go over real well. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic shows what happens when an infectious pathogen spreads without a vaccine available.
Some of the comments referred to Gates’ support of funding the World Health Organization (WHO) such as one that said, “America has suspended payment to the WHO and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are the largest Donors.” Such comments may be suggesting that Gates has ulterior motives for supporting the WHO in the following tweet on April 15:
Gates didn’t refer to U.S. President Donald Trump by name in the tweet. But unless someone else like SpongeBob SquarePants has now taken over such decision-making for the U.S, it probably refers to Trump and his recent announcement that America’s payments to the WHO will be halted. As Isabel Togoh described for Forbes, Trump has accused the WHO of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” and indicated that the payments would be held until a “review” of the WHO is completed.
It would be one thing if Gates were the only person to criticize such a decision, but a wide range of folks have condemned Trump’s statement and decision to withhold funding as well. For example, Trevor Noah relayed concerns on what’s now called The Daily Social Distancing Show:
Criticism of Trump’s decision revolves around the fact that the WHO is the one organization that can help coordinate the global response to the pandemic. This is, by the way, a pandemic that is occurring right now in case you haven’t watched the news, haven’t been on social media, and haven’t figured out why everyone is making wide circles around you when you are walking outside. Trying to cut off the WHO now is a bit like saying, “yes, I realize that we are on fire, but hey, you supplying the water, you’re fired!” If the WHO doesn’t have the necessary resources, who besides the WHO is going to fill the role of bringing together the different country efforts and providing science-based information across the world? Jared Kushner? An army of penguins? A massive Facebook group?
Another claim circulating on social media is that Gates owns the “patent” for the SARS-CoV2, a virus that wasn’t even discovered until January 2020. The theory goes that this entire pandemic thing is just to create a need for a vaccine from which Gates will subsequently profit. This includes a variety of posts on Facebook that are now labeled by Facebook as “false information, checked by independent fact-checkers.” These posts claim that The Pirbright Institute, which is based in Surrey, England, and has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, owns the patent for this new coronavirus that’s causing the current pandemic.
Want to know a big problem with such a claim? The patent that The Pirbright Institute holds is for a different coronavirus, one that mainly affects chickens, not the SARS-CoV2. Now chickens don’t seem to be aflutter about any conspiracy theories about the Gates Foundation trying to cull them. Of course, that may be because they have other people to worry about and most of us don’t speak chicken. Nevertheless, different coronaviruses are very different. Holding a patent for one doesn’t translate to a patent for another. That would be like saying that Paris Hilton, who trademarked the catchphrase, “That’s hot,” also owns the rights to “That’s not,” or “That’s snot,” or “hot wings.”
Additionally, there are a lot easier ways to make money than selling vaccines, which have to go through extensive testing and regulatory requirements. Vaccines don’t have the profit margins of other medications such as Viagra and other lifestyle medications or lower cost items like supplements or telling people to stick various household objects in their orifices.
Keep in mind that Gates has been far from a lone voice in expressing concerns about potential pandemics and pushing for more action before this COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. In fact, he’s simply been echoing the concerns of many, many scientists and public health officials in the infectious disease world. Everyone in this world has seen how a new microbe like a virus or even an old microbe that suddenly has gotten some more gusto can unexpectedly emerge and quickly spread. This happened during the 2002 SARS outbreak, the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreaks, and the 2016 Zika outbreak. All of these were all basically prequels to this current pandemic. They were harbingers like the episodes of chest pain that come before the heart attack, the feelings of “hmmmm” that come before the divorce, or the new baby characters that appear on a TV series before it gets canceled.
The trouble is too few ended up heeding these warnings, and now everyone is stuck at home, hugging their toilet paper rolls as if they were gold as opposed to a little gold-colored after use. Not only that, people are actually dying each and every day that this pandemic continues. Gates was one person who actually listened to and understood the pandemic concerns being raised by real scientists. These conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus do nothing to control the pandemic. In fact, they detract from the efforts of scientists, health care professionals, and officials who are taking action against the virus. As Bruce Willis said in the movie Die Hard, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Quit being part of the [bleeping] problem and put the other guy back on!”