In the summer of 2020, Bill Gates predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic could be over sometime in the second half of 2021. That, as we know now, did not happen. Gates obviously underestimated the speed at which the coronavirus mutated and the transmissibility of newer variants. And the latest Omicron is spreading so wildly that the number of infections is growing faster than ever.
Gates is not a scientist nor an infectious disease expert. But he has committed vast resources through his foundation to developing COVID-19 vaccines and helping vaccine distribution during the pandemic. He also presciently saw a respiratory pandemic coming years before it did, which makes him a respected voice in the medical community, especially when it comes to COVID-19.
In a Twitter Q&A on Tuesday with Devi Sridhar, a professor at Edinburgh University Medical School and the director of the nonprofit Global Health Gov, Gates shared his latest thoughts on the pandemic and outlooks for the future.
Having seen the omicron variant rise and ebb in other countries, Gates is optimistic that, after the omicron wave passes in the U.S., the pandemic will be more manageable, like a seasonal flu. But for it to really end, we would need long-lasting vaccines that can prevent re-infection. Otherwise we may have to take yearly shots for some time.
He also suggested that the government should invest more in “surveillance” in order to detect a pandemic early. And when asked whether America is prepared in case another pandemic hits, he said honestly, “I hope so but I am not sure.”
Below are the key takeaways from his Twitter exchange.
On where COVID-19 came from: “The data is pretty strong that it came from another species which is true for most pandemics. People will continue to speculate on this and we should make sure labs are careful. There will be future outbreaks coming from other species so we need to invest in being ready.”
On Omicron: “A more transmissive variant is not likely but we have been surprised a lot during this pandemic. Omicron will create a lot of immunity at least for the next year…As countries experience their Omicron wave health systems will be challenged. Most of the severe cases will be unvaccinated people.”
On when the pandemic will end: “Once Omicron goes through a country then the rest of the year should see far fewer cases so COVID can be treated more like seasonal flu.”
On conspiracy theories targeting him: “I didn’t expect that. Some of it like me putting chips in arms doesn’t make sense to me—Why would I want to do that?”
“Trusted authorities like WHO and CDC need more resources to see the pandemic early (surveillance) and to communicate better. Social media got behind on trying to get factual information out—there will be a lot of debate about how to better on that…”
On whether existing vaccines are good enough: “The vaccines we have prevent severe disease and death very well but they are missing two key things. First, they still allow infections (“breakthrough”) and the duration appears to be limited. We need vaccines that prevent re-infection and have many years duration.”