How Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation swung the Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine to AstraZeneca

October 7, 2020: The Nation magazine has started the investigation of investments that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may have in the pharmaceutical companies wanting to manufacture possible COVID-19 vaccines. The Gates Foundation is the key funder of Gavi The Vaccine Alliance and CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, as well as being a co-leader in the World Health Organisation’s COVAX Facility and Advanced Market Commitment funds. While this funding is most welcome, it is based on current WTO intellectual property rules that give private companies monopoly rights on new medicines for 20 years, with exceptions that are difficult to use even in a pandemic.

Gates pushed the University of Oxford to deliver its leading COVID-19 vaccine candidate to a partnership with AstraZeneca, as Bloomberg and Kaiser Health News recently reported. This changed the university’s distribution model from an open-license platform, designed to make its vaccine freely available for any manufacturer, to an exclusive license controlled by AstraZeneca.

Gates was persuasive because CEPI funds the University of Oxford’s vaccine projects with US$384 million. The Gates Foundation has also directly given hundreds of millions of dollars to the university through charitable grants for a variety of projects—including previous funding to the university’s Jenner Institute, which is developing Oxford’s COVID-19 vaccine.

Oxford and AstraZeneca have made public promises about forgoing profits and providing fair access to their vaccine, if it is successful, but neither have provided details. Other companies have made similar humanitarian pledges but they continue to pursue the traditional business model—based on exclusive licenses— designed to generate profits, not promote fair access.

“If we change the way in which you regulate the industry, or the ways in which you want medicines or vaccines to be produced and delivered,” says K M Gopakumar, legal adviser to the Third World Network, who is based in India, “it’s definitely going to affect these companies’ business model—and also the investments of Gates Foundation. So they are using their money to reinforce the status quo.”

The Foundation put US$250 million of its US$2.5 billion Strategic Investment Fund into its work on COVID-19, including investments in Gilead, owner of the COVID-19 treatment drug Remdesivir, and CureVac, a German company working on a COVID-19 vaccine.

According to Forbes’s estimates, Bill Gates’s private wealth, at around US$115 billion, has increased by more than US$10 billion during the pandemic. However lack of transparency means that there is little information about the details of personal investments in companies working on COVID-19.

If the Gates followed either media or scientific disclosure rules, there would be transparency around the Gates Foundation’s US$47 billion endowment and also the personal fortune of Bill and Melinda Gates.