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We Must Find a Way to Prevent Bill Gates from Preventing the Next Pandemic
A book review.
For days now, I’ve been fighting my way through Bill Gates’s disturbing new book on How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, and I’ve found myself wondering about one question above all:
How are we to explain Gates, exactly?
I know that for many of you he is a calculating conspiratorial goon. Pretend for a moment that he’s not, though. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that he’s every inch the obtuse, naive and self-important former software developer that he seems to be. How did he get this way, what does he even think he is doing, and what can it mean?
Remember that this man has billions of dollars. A whole world of unusual vices stands open to him: He could hire a mercenary army to invade some country and proclaim himself god-emperor for life. He could retire to a tropical island with his favourite mind-altering substances and a harem of nubile young women. He could do both at once, and other things besides. Instead, he has chosen the path of moral vanity, perhaps the least interesting vice of all, founding a ponderous grantmaking foundation and pooping around the globe in manboobs and ill-fitting polo shirts, pronouncing to all and sundry on subjects he hardly understands.
A commenter points me to Jeffrey Tucker, who, as it turns out, has done critical work towards developing a Theory of Gates. At Microsoft, Gates oversaw the development of poorly secured software overrun by computer viruses. Afterwards, Tucker notes, he
… started dabbling in other areas, as newly rich people tend to do. They often imagine themselves especially competent at taking on challenges that others have failed at simply because of their professional successes. Also by this point in his career, he was only surrounded by sycophants who would not interrupt his descent into crankiness.
And what subject did he pounce on? He would do to the world of pathogens what he did at Microsoft: he would stamp them out! He began with malaria and other issues and eventually decided to take on them all. And what was his solution? Of course: antivirus software. What is that? It is vaccines. Your body is the hard drive that he would save with his software-style solution.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I noted that Gates was pushing hard for lockdowns. His foundation was now funding research labs the world over with billions of dollars, plus universities and direct grants to scientists. He was also investing heavily in vaccine companies.
Early on in the pandemic, to get a sense of Gates’s views, I watched his TED talks. I began to realize something astonishing. He knew much less than anyone could discover by reading a book on cell biology from Amazon. He couldn’t even give a basic 9th-grade-level explanation of viruses and their interaction with the human body. And yet here he was lecturing the world about the coming pathogen and what should be done about it. His answer is always the same: more surveillance, more control, more technology.
Once you understand the simplicity of his core confusions, everything else he says makes sense from his point of view. He seems forever stuck in the fallacy that the human being is a cog in a massive machine called society that cries out for his managerial and technological leadership to improve to the point of operational perfection.
There’s a lot to recommend this view. It explains specific things, like Gates’s fondness for mRNA vaccines, a genetic equivalent of computer code. More than that, though, it elucidates Gates’s failure to appreciate the essential intractability of many ancient human problems. Gates dreams of saving mankind from disease and poverty – things that are so much a part of what it means to be human, that it seems an error to call them problems in the first place. We are mortal beings; not all of us can be wealthy; we’ll all die of something. Gates the software developer has no experience of problems like that.
The fundamental message of How to Prevent the Next Pandemic is that we can stop future pandemic events by doing all of the things that did not stop the last pandemic event, only more, faster and harder.
Gates can’t get enough of the World Health Organisation. He proposes expanding it with a 3,000-strong division of pandemic shock troops called the Global Epidemic Response and Mobilisation team. That is not a joke; he actually wants to call it GERM. He says it’ll be comprised of epidemiologists, geneticists, pharmaceutical experts, data systems people, diplomats, rapid responders, modellers, and heaven knows who else. These people will jet around the world ensuring that an identical response is propagated instantly everywhere, so we can all endure the same catastrophic mistakes at the same time. A Corona tsar for every country, distributed from the same central depot.
Mass testing is another thing that is great and that we need more of. Gates wants cheap home tests everywhere, “to make it easier for everyone to get tested and get results fast” (p. 64). He also wants central databases to log all these precious test results. Antigen tests are great, but more accurate rapid testing technologies are even better. And of course we need more genetic sequencing to understand the progress of outbreaks and identify who is doing the spreading. It’s a scene straight out of Brazil: You wake up in the morning, send your mandatory swab through the vacuum tube for testing at the Ministry of Health, and the virus police are kicking down your door while you’re waiting for the coffee to boil.
Probably the strangest moment in this extended paean to the collection and management of disease statistics, is the praise Gates reserves for modellers. He thinks pandemic modelling “will eventually do better than the weather forecast” (p. 78), and he thinks modellers have been unfairly maligned by the press. He defends Neil Ferguson in particular:
In March 2020, Neil Ferguson, a highly respected epidemiologist at Imperial College, predicted that there could be more than 500,000 COVID deaths in the U.K. and more than 2 million in the U.S. over the course of the pandemic. That caused quite a stir in the press, but few reporters mentioned a key point that Ferguson had been very clear about: The scenario of his that made all the headlines assumed that people wouldn’t change their behavior – that no one would wear masks or shelter in place, for instance – but of course that wouldn’t be the case in reality. (p. 80)
It’s hard to imagine that Gates has ever even seen Ferguson’s paper. The Imperial College team were wrong about everything. They were especially wrong about the mitigating effects different interventions would have, which was the whole point of bothering with lockdown-justifying models in the first place.
In another absurd moment, Gates pleads that “The level of uncertainty” in pandemic modelling “can be quite high.” He recalls one modeller’s estimate, from February 2020, that there were “570 cases in Washington state, with a 90 percent certainty that it was between 80 and 1,500. Any report that omitted the range of possibilities left out some pretty important context” (p. 80). You have to rub your eyes, reading stupid stuff like this. What use is a model that predicts that there might be not that many cases out there, or there might be quite a lot, and how is it any better than just guessing? The open secret about modelling, of course, is that it’s not even a serious attempt at prediction. Modellers are just clients of the containment regime, tasked with developing fancy scientific equations that justify intrusive NPIs. Gates even seems intermittently aware of this, at one moment conceding that Ferguson’s goal was “to show how high the stakes were” (p. 80), (but somehow “not [to] drive everyone into a panic”).
“Help People Protect Themselves Right Away,” is the title of Chapter 4, where Gates lays out the case for keeping lockdowns and other containment measures in the pandemicist repertoire. He throws out that vile Fauci quote – “If it looks like you’re overreacting, you’re probably doing the right thing” – and indulges in what is by now one of the most tired arguments in the world:
The irony of NPIs is that the better they work, the easier it is to criticize the people who put them in place. If a city or state adopts them early enough, the case numbers will stay low, and critics will find it easy to say they weren’t necessary. (p. 86)
These pages are the most reprehensible in the whole book. Lockdowns have been an unmitigated disaster; they have ruined millions of lives and wrought untold economic destruction, and yet Gates, who lives in a 6,000 square-metre house and flies around the globe in private jets, waves away these costs with fake graphs and empty assurances that “lockdowns have clear benefits for public health” (p. 88).
Elsewhere, Gates vents his frustration that rich countries hoarded vaccine doses at the expense of the third world, but so great is his myopia that he fails to draw the obvious connection – that it was precisely his precious destructive lockdowns that drove the mad vaccination frenzy of 2021.
No, the costs of lockdowns remain beyond Gates, and in this he is no different than all the other oblivious well-off retirees, who have never thought twice about putting their neighbours out of business or condemning young children to eight hours of enforced masking every day. Climate lockdowns may have been a passing fantasy, but influenza lockdowns are something Gates remains deeply interested in. He even wonders if NPIs could be “paired with vaccines” to “eventually eradicate every strain of flu” (p. 96). Apparently, nobody has told the man that influenza has substantial animal reservoirs, from which it repeatedly jumps to humans.
In this formulaic endorsement of all the crazy policies that have been inflicted on humanity since 2020, two curiosities stand out. The first is Gates’s quiet but clear disillusionment with mRNA vaccines. The best thing he can find to say about them, is that they were developed quickly; otherwise, he damns them with faint praise, at one point even writing that masks have been more effective. He dreams of new, better vaccines, indeed “universal vaccines” that can target multiple pathogens, and that will provide “total protection” (p. 177) after a single dose. He also wonders about vaccines that can be delivered as a nasal spray, like the “imaginary vaccine for the hypothetical virus depicted in the movie Contagion” (p. 174), and that don’t have to be kept cold. Despite all of Gates’s software geek mRNA enthusiasm, these lines show he’s wondering if another approach wouldn’t have been better. The mRNA molecules decay quickly at normal temperatures, and technology for an mRNA nasal spray vaccine is years away.
The second eccentric moment, is Gates’s seventh chapter, called “Practice, practice, practice,” where he fantasises about all the pandemic war-games we need to have. Table-top exercises are great; “functional exercises” with “simulated disaster[s]” are better; the absolute best is the “full-scale exercise” complete with crisis actors and helicopters.
Proper war games have a certain logic to them; they allow commanders and politicians to gain experience in simulated conflicts, and they generate data for planners to study. Pandemic war-games are another matter. Pandemics are not wars, there is nobody to play the part of the virus, and so they tend to be little more than scripted media events – which explains why Bill Gates likes them so much. To him, these are fun parties where he can meet all of his favourite people and pretend to knowledge and importance. He’s had a great pandemic, and he wants to keep the emergency going, if only virtually.
Gates knows that he’s widely disliked, and that his inability to shut up has something to do with it:
One side effect of speaking out … is that it has provoked more of the criticisms of the Gate Foundation’s work that I’ve been hearing for years. … Bill Gates is an unelected billionaire - who is he to set the agenda on health or anything else? Three corollaries of this criticism are that the Gates Foundation has too much influence, that I have too much faith in the private sector as an engine of change, and that I’m a technophile who thinks new inventions will solve all our problems. (p. 16)
Gates has no real answer to these charges, pleading only that his foundation doesn’t work “in secret,” that they consult “outside experts.” As for technophilia, he is unapologetic:
Innovation is my hammer, and I try to use it on every nail I see. As a founder of a successful technology company, I am a great believer in the power of the private sector to drive innovation. But innovation doesn’t have to be just a new machine or a vaccine, as important as those are. It can be a different way of doing things, a new policy, or a clever scheme for financing a public good. (p. 17)
Innovation, in Gatesland, always works the same way: In the beginning there is a grave problem, which for some reason nobody has noticed or cared about before. Then, there appears an Innovator, very often a woman or a racial minority. This blessed Innovator proposes a simple and obvious solution, which requires mainly grant funding. Thereafter, the problem is no more, and the world is better.
Thus we have the story of Bernard Olayo, who solved the problem of oxygen:
Oxygen is an important component in any health system … and … low- and middle-income countries have struggled [to supply it]. Bernard Olayo, a health specialist at the world bank, is trying to do something about it … In 2014, Olayo created an organization called Hewatele – the Swahili word for “abundant air” … With funding from local and international investors, Hewatele built oxygen plants at several of the busiest hospitals in the country … It devised a milkman model: Oxygen cylinders would regularly be dropped off at remote hospitals and clinics, and empty cylinders returned for a refill. Using this new approach, Hewatele cut the market price for oxygen in Kenya by 50 percent and reached some 35,000 patients. (p. 119)
Or the story of Stephaun Wallace, who is solving the problem of demographically uniform trial participants by recruiting “a diverse pool of volunteers from different genders, communities, races, ethnicities and age groups” (p. 169). Or the story of Sister Astridah Banda, who “is not a doctor but … is passionate about public health” (p. 175), and who is helping to combat Corona misinformation in Zambia by translating English advisories into local languages.
Gates likes to wrap up his anecdotes with statistics that sound good but don’t actually say very much the success of his blessed innovations: “Her show now reaches more than 1.5 million people” (p. 176), he says.
Problem, innovation, solution, happy: This is how everything works according to Gates. It’s how Maurice Hilleman invented the mumps vaccine, it’s how Katalin Karikó developed mRNA technology, it’s how James Lind discovered a cure for scurvy:
In May 1747, a physician named James Lind was serving as a ship’s surgeon … He was horrified by the number of sailors who were suffering from scurvy. No one knew at the time what caused scurvy, but Lind wanted a cure, so he decided to try various options and compare the results … The citrus treatment won out. … Although the British navy wouldn’t make citrus a required part of a sailor’s diet for nearly fifty years, Lind had found the first real evidence of a cure for scurvy. He had also run what is widely regarded as the first controlled clinical trial of the modern era. (p. 125)
If you look a little deeper, though, you’ll find that almost nothing ever works like Gates claims it does. Lind is a great example. The knowledge that scurvy was diet-related, and that fresh fruits or vegetables could cure it, had been around for centuries. Lind presented the results of his experiment only in passing; he never promoted citrus as the primary remedy, and scurvy continued to plague sailors until well into the twentieth century. It wasn’t poor nutritional discipline that caused scurvy outbreaks, but the logistical problem of maintaining fresh food stores on long voyages. And proving the citrus fruit cure wasn’t enough; without a deeper understanding of Vitamin C, Lind’s solution was incomplete and unstable, doomed to be disputed, forgotten and rediscovered over and over.
Simple, straightforward problems, of the sort that can be rectified through the genius of an innovator and the beneficence of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are so rare that that there aren’t enough to stock even Gates’s carefully chosen catalogue of innovationist parables. Most of what faces us are complex, difficult and multilayered problems, solutions to which will require developments across multiple fields and new cultural and social understandings. The empowered innovator is a convenient myth, and this persistent belief that we are just One Cool Trick away from solving things like viruses is a dangerous, destructive illusion.
Gates, the retired software engineer who can’t distinguish between digital and biological viruses, is one, specific theory of the man. In reading How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, though, I’ve come to formulate another, more general theory. This is simply that, far from being a conspiratorial and calculating agenda-setter, Gates is a follower. He spends his days chasing down bureaucrats and politicians and scientists, pestering them for meetings, currying favour, asking them what to think and eagerly repeating everything they tell him in childish, oversimplified prose to anybody who will listen.
He loves dropping names. Barely has he started writing, than he’s telling us about his “first call with Anthony Fauci,” a man he’s “lucky to have known … for years … long before he was on the cover of pop-culture magazines.” Gates “wanted to hear what he was thinking”; he “wanted to understand what he was saying publicly … so” he “could help by echoing the same points” (p. 15). You can see Gates now, the strange bespectacled boy at the front of the class, begging teacher for the answer.
In another unguarded moment, Gates mentions attending a meeting in March 2020 while feeling sick; masking would’ve been the obvious thing to do, given his faith in them, but “the CDC hadn’t recommended masks yet” (p. 110), so he didn’t bother. Elsewhere, Gates lectures his readers on the virtuous and hardworking nature of medical bureaucrats; he calls them “unsung heroes” and warns against anyone who might be “bad-mouthing” them (p. 160). And in a bizarre Afterword on his hopes for a “digital future,” Gates enthuses about how much easier our newfound reliance on screens has made it for him to stay in touch with “political leaders”. “Pre-pandemic,” he worried that asking for a video call “would have been seen as less respectful than meeting in person” (p. 238), but now videoconferencing is the norm, so he feels better about pinging them whenever he wants their attention.
Gates-as-follower explains the most obtrusive aspect of How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, namely the total absence from its pages of any original thought. Gates doesn’t know anything except what his small clique of court experts tells him. That masks don’t work, that pandemic modelling has been a laughable failure, that it is the human immune system and not technology that places the ultimate constraints on vaccine potential, that corona and influenza viruses have massive animal reservoirs – he has no idea about any of this. Gates is part of an ominous development, a new breed of low-brow elite who present themselves as leaders, while eagerly following every source of celebrity and authority they know. Thus modern society is increasingly caught in dangerous, self-reinforcing feedback loops, a massive ant-wheel, a world of dogs chasing their tails, with nobody in charge. A Davos-directed conspiracy would be some comfort, but our car is heading for the cliff and absolutely nobody is driving. That’s much, much worse.