By Anonna Dutt
The first 25 weeks of the Covid pandemic destroyed 25 years of progress in global health and three years later, most countries’ health systems are still not completely back on track, said Bill Gates on Wednesday, adding that the pandemic “catalysed” a wave of health innovation in India.
With its record of vaccine development and digital public infrastructure platform, India has the potential to develop into a hub of “innovation and ingenuity”, to herald a “new era of global partnership” which can overcome the world’s greatest challenges, Gates said, delivering the Fifth Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture here.
Underlining the power of innovation to bridge divides and the role of India in the “big, global innovation boom”, Gates said: “When I was at Microsoft
When it comes to overcoming the world’s greatest challenges like climate change or healthcare, India has a significant role to play, Gates said, flagging the country’s low-cost innovations like the rotavirus vaccine that saved lives globally, and affordable solutions like making biofuels and fertilisers from waste to address climate change.
The author, philanthropist, investor, technology founder, and co-chair and trustee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began his lecture by talking about a front-page article in The New York Times that talked about 3 million children dying of diarrhoea every year, 90% of whom were from developing countries. He said he had a list of concerns for his newborn daughter but diarrhoea was not among them. He spoke of India’s journey from there to a point where 83% of one-year-olds in the country receive the rotavirus vaccine, saving 200,000 lives each year.
Gates said that although childhood immunisation levels were bouncing back to the pre-pandemic levels in India, for many other countries it might take another three years to get back on track. He spoke about innovations during Covid-19 and India’s ability to develop cheaper kits and scale up testing.
Later, in a conversation with Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express, on being asked about the balance between incentivising innovation and sharing of technology, Gates said that a “kind of ideal” solution does exist in the field. He said the return of investments for companies comes primarily from sales in rich countries, somewhat from middle income countries, and for the lower income countries, the price should be just what it costs to make the medicine. As for climate technologies, market competition and political processes “will kick in.”
He said that big pharma has done incredible innovations, bringing out new class of obesity drugs and continuing research for Alzheimer’s drug, and so “I wouldn’t want to get rid of profit motive in medical innovation.”
Speaking on the climate crisis, Gates said: “Most of the emissions come from the rich countries and yet most of the damage will be in middle income and lower income countries that are near the Equator. It’s an incredible injustice. And, even though it creeps up on you, we need act now, we need to act in a very big way.”
One of the challenges though with climate change, Gates said, is the “green premium” that comes with products made without emitting greenhouse gases. He said: “If you try to buy jet fuel that’s green, it’s twice as expensive. If you want to buy cement without emission, it’s twice as expensive. Now someone could say that climate is important so let’s get somebody to write a cheque for that extra cost. But sadly that will be trillions of dollars a year. And, there just is no fund… even in the rich countries,” he said, adding that climate crisis is an innovation challenge that shrinks the green premium.
Earlier, in his welcome address, Raj Kamal Jha, Chief Editor, The Indian Express, said that Gates brought “science and hope” to the enduring questions of the day. Quoting his remark that “Innovation is a hammer and I use it on every nail I see,” Jha said that the nails Gates saw – from education to public health — were “pegs for social change and expanded the common good.”
This was the first Ramnath Goenka lecture after the pandemic. The lecture, named after the founder of The Indian Express, has been delivered by then RBI
On climate change, Gates said the challenge was innovation on a “massive scale,” to ensure that the world gets to net-zero emissions “without the penalty of higher prices for going green.” “It is an injustice that the people who have done the least to cause climate change are the ones suffering the most from it,” he said. “In my lifetime I’ve never been so optimistic about the potential for new technologies to improve the world,” he added.