Bill Gates to Corporations: Help Others to Help Yourselves—Public Health Watch

Bill Gates always puts his money where his mouth is.

Bill Gates always puts his money where his mouth is.

The Microsoft co-founder is worth an estimated $90 billion, making him one of the wealthiest people in the world. And, he has—particularly in recent years—literally spread at least some of that wealth. With the establishment of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, Gates and his wife have raised billions for various charities and philanthropic initiatives worldwide—donating more than $25 billion of their own assets to the cause, according to online reports.

Such generosity has earned the Gates plaudits the world over. However, it seems that there may be more than altruism behind their activism.

“Industry has the skills, experience, and capacity necessary to turn discoveries into commercially viable products,” Bill Gates told attendees at the 36th annual JP Morgan Healthcare conference in San Francisco on January 8, according to Bloomberg “And, frankly, the private sector has much to gain from pursuing breakthroughs in global health.”

Of course, much of the Gates’ charitable work has been focused on infectious diseases, with more than $10 billion (based on International Aid Transparency Initiative filings) raised to fund initiatives on prevention and education for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis (TB). However, he told conference attendees in San Francisco—mostly executives from privately-owned drug and device companies—that the foundation, and the world, needs their help in addressing some of the biggest public health challenges in human history, and that engagement in these efforts would likely prove beneficial to their own bottom lines as well.

“With creative thinking, we can do it in ways that are both sustainable and profitable,” he said, per Bloomberg. In a separate interview with the news organization, Trevor Mundel, president of global health for the Gates Foundation, was even more specific: “We recognize… companies are motivated by being successful… and by delivering returns to their shareholders. There’s a certain business rationale for getting involved in global health.”

In other words, in the view of Gates and his foundation team, development of a novel treatment for a problematic infectious disease, or a new vaccine designed to prevent one, would not only help populations at risk but would make for important profit-enhancing innovations for the companies involved as well.

Which makes sense, of course. It’s just that many of us would perhaps prefer not to think in those terms. Much to the chagrin of some in the not-for-profit world, the Gates Foundation has, at least historically, been run like a business, investing a portion of its funds in order to increase its endowment. In the past, it has been criticized for purchasing stock in corporations that have been accused of exploiting countries in the developing world and contributing to poverty in the very places it has pledged to help. And not all of this criticism is ancient history, as evidenced by a 2014 report by The Nation magazine.

In the end, what matters is that help is provided to the people who need it, whether they are at risk due to lack of resources or from infectious diseases; after all, diseases such as malaria and TB—2 prime targets of the Gates Foundation—still pose significant threats.

However, wouldn’t it be nice if doing good was good enough—and that some entities would be willing to help without helping themselves?

Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous health care-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.