Improvements in global health outcomes have stalled over the past 20 years during the COVID-19 pandemic, underscoring the need for increased innovation to catch up.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who is now co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, highlighted the role that genetic sequencing and DNA-based pathogen surveillance can play in recovering from COVID-19 and preventing the next pandemic.
“We’re a bit of a duality here,” said Gates, speaking Friday at the Illumina Genomics Forum in San Diego. “The current state of health post-pandemic is not what we hoped it would be. This is a huge setback.
“On the other hand, we have this innovation, most of which is based on genomics,” he continued. “So, in general, I’m very excited about how we can use this to dramatically improve human health around the world.”
Founded 22 years ago, the Gates Foundation focuses on health issues, particularly in developing countries, where infectious diseases can account for four out of five deaths. Its work includes fighting malaria, malnutrition and infectious pathogens.
“We’re using genomics to detect and track diseases like malaria, which could eventually lead to malaria eradication,” he said. “We’re using genomics to address malnutrition,” by sequencing microbiome bacteria to better Learn about stomach health and developing strong seeds with temperature, crop yield and disease resistance in agriculture.
Global health initiatives since 2000 have helped reduce the global death toll of children under 5 from 10 million to 5 million, Gates said. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals call for reducing child deaths to 2.5 million by 2030.
In addition, Gates said, polio is on the cusp of being eradicated along with smallpox. Malaria deaths, AIDS deaths and tuberculosis deaths have fallen sharply.
“Despite these advances, we’ve either stagnated or regressed since the pandemic,” Gates said. “If you take the sustainable development goals set by the United Nations in 2015, and achieve those goals by 2030, Goal, we’re not in good shape.”
Donors at the Gates Foundation, including Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett and others, have pledged to increase annual global health spending from $6 billion to $9 billion.
Gates called for increased investment in infectious disease surveillance, including monitoring of genetic markers of pathogens in wastewater.
“We don’t want another pandemic,” he said. “It’s 20 million lives, $20 trillion, huge deficits, learning loss, mental stress. We’re going to be trying to get out of this for a long time. ”
During the pandemic, the Gates Foundation, in partnership with Illumina, the African Centers for Disease Control and others, has established surveillance programs in Africa to sequence coronavirus DNA there to better understand variants.
“We have to accelerate innovation,” he said. “The only way we’re going to get back on track is to combine better tools, where genomics plays a major role, and better targets, where genomics monitoring plays a major role.”