Has anyone seen Bill Gates lately?

I'm kidding, of course. Even with extreme social distancing and staying at home, Gates has been everywhere, at least virtually. 

This week, Gates's biggest announcement was that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will spend billions to quickly build seven manufacturing facilities, so that when vaccines for Covid-19 are identified, they can be mass-produced quickly.

But there's a brutal truth reflected in the Gates plan, which is that the effort will involve knowingly wasting lots and lots of money.

Gates as a soothsayer.

As Gates explains, the problem is we need the vaccination manufacturing facilities to be ready as soon as the two most promising vaccines are identified. But there are now at least seven key efforts underway.

"Even though we'll end up picking at most two of them, we're going to fund factories for all seven just so we don't waste time in serially saying, 'OK, which vaccine works?' And then building the factory," Gates explained in an appearance on The Daily Show this week.

Gates has emerged as a soothsayer in recent weeks, with renewed attention to his 2015 New England Journal of Medicine article (.pdf link) and TED Talk, in which he predicted a pandemic quite similar to the one we're now facing -- and warned we weren't anywhere near prepared.

Literally, his TED Talk was called: "The next outbreak? We're not ready."

Key dates in history

I've written before that the reason Gates is in a position to sound a call like this is that he's one of the few icons of entrepreneurship to have a second act that might eclipse his first.

That makes January 13, 2000, a key date in "Bill Gates history," because it's the day he stepped down as CEO of Microsoft and began to devote himself to becoming one of the world's most-celebrated philanthropists.

Days after that decision, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation rebranded, and Gates made a $5 billion donation to supercharge its efforts.

In fact, if you really want to piece together the story, it probably goes back to when Gates first met Warren Buffett, who got him focused on philanthropy, at a lunch on July 5, 1991.

"It'll be a few billion dollars we'll waste."

Besides his appearance on The Daily Show, Gates wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post this week advocating for a massive government effort that would include:

  • a national shutdown (as opposed to the piecemeal approach); 
  • a massive effort toward more testing;
  • "a data-based approach to developing treatments and a vaccine."

But it was on The Daily Show that his words really hit home, pointing out that foundations like his can move more quickly than governments, in part because they're willing to fund some efforts they know ultimately won't work, so they can kickstart the ones that will.

"It'll be a few billion dollars we'll waste on manufacturing for the constructs that don't get picked because something else is better," Gates said. "But a few billion in this situation we're in, where there's... trillions of dollars being lost economically, it is worth it."

Here's the video of Gates's appearance. To see the part where he talks about funding seven factories while knowing that five of them probably won't be used, go to about the 18-minute mark.