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As the first major pandemic since the Spanish Flu a century ago, COVID caught everyone by surprise, leaving the world devastated. Now, the WHO says that the end of COVID is “in sight.” But how did we get here? Who was driving the global COVID response?
On Wednesday, Politico released an investigative report, conducted with German newspaper Welt, on four non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that helped drive the international COVID response. Journalists found that these NGOs – which include The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and three other groups with connections to it – gave or invested almost US$10 billion to fight COVID. They were able to work with world leaders and the WHO. Plus, US$2.1 billion of their funds also went to developing and distributing a viable vaccine.
As non-governmental organizations, though, they lacked governmental oversight and accountability. The report found that US and EU officials rotated through these groups as employees, solidifying their political connections. They also spent at least US$8.3 million lobbying lawmakers and government officials. Ultimately, according to an independent review, these groups mostly fell short in their worldwide distribution goals of COVID tools to developing nations. The Gates Foundation also prevented waiving intellectual property rights on vaccines, which many saw as helping Big Pharma out rather than poorer nations.
“I think we should be deeply concerned,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor specializing in public health law. “Putting it in a very crass way, money buys influence. And this is the worst kind of influence. Not just because it’s money – although that’s important, because money shouldn’t dictate policy – but also, because it’s preferential access, behind closed doors.”
“The thing that is holding [vaccination rates] back in this case is not intellectual property,” Bill Gates said in 2021, referring to his dismissal of appeals to share vaccine recipes.
“In the fullness of hindsight, it is now eminently clear that the power structures have favored the Global North over the Global South,” Olusoji Adeyi, former senior adviser for human development at World Bank, claimed.
“During the Trump administration, even us talking about doing global work was just constantly shot down,” said a former senior US official to Politico. “When USAID got their funds to provide external COVID aid, the response funds were going to Gavi … to do that work on behalf of the United States. It was made very, very clear that the United States would never be sending people – particularly not the military – to other nations to do that type of work.”
“While there is much that we can improve upon, it would be inaccurate to apportion all the blame for the failures of the global response to the very organizations that did more than anyone else to try and solve the problems of vaccine supply and inequity,” said a spokesperson for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), one of the NGOs outlined in the report.