Kara Swisher

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Interview: Bill Gates Talks About Tech Innovations for Vaccines Ahead of Global Confab

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Earlier today, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates discussed technological innovations for vaccines, ahead of a Global Vaccine Summit being held next week in Abu Dhabi.

Set during World Immunization Week, 300 people — including Gates, who is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and who will be delivering a keynote address — will gather on April 24 and 25 to talk about what the world community needs to do move forward the effort to vaccinate children, including a plan to eradicate polio by 2018.

It’s an important effort since, according to the Gates Foundation, every 20 seconds one child dies from a disease that could have been prevented by an existing vaccine.

“The key thing to understand is that vaccines are miraculous,” said Gates in a roundtable telephone interview with several reporters, noting that they are low-cost in relation to the huge benefit they provide.

Two key next steps, he said, have to do with a variety of technologies that are being explored to help in the delivery of vaccines, and also finding ways to make them cheaper.

“There is an under-investment in general, particularly in doing things for the poorest,” he said, requiring his private organization and others to pay for the research or to work with big pharmaceutical companies to create technologies that can also be deployed in more lucrative ways in rich countries. “Usually, there is a missing market incentive.”

Still, there is innovation in the sector, even if it is slow.

Gates referenced a “super-thermos” approach that is being field-tested in Senegal that keeps vaccines cold without needing more energy. Another effort is under way to formulate vaccines so that they do not need to be kept cold in the first place. A third is to combine several vaccines together to get the prices down.

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Also important are improvements in satellite mapping technology, which allows field workers who deliver the vaccines to better assess where the need is. That’s especially important since a lot of the work is still on the ground, such as the push to eradicate polio in much the same way as smallpox has been. Currently, noted Gates, it is still an issue in just three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

And since reaching near total coverage is critical — “The difference between 85 percent and 90 percent [coverage] can be the difference between success and failure,” said Gates — making sure health workers find the people they are trying to vaccinate is paramount.

“It’s kind of a high-tech thing compared to how it was being done,” said Gates.

But, although there have been great hopes around the use of mobile devices in the field to access and record accurate data on patient visits, immunizations and other health information, it’s still an uphill battle against easier paper solutions.

“The paper-based systems are preferable,” said Gates, because of lack of reliable connectivity and ease of use. “It’s a high threshold to get rid of that and use cellphones.”

Or, as Gates noted in a blog post from a recent visit to Ghana, where cellphone data-keeping is being tested: “Many of us are looking at potential digital strategies for record-keeping, but paper is pretty good.”

(Photo courtesy of the Gates Foundation)


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik