Bill Gates is best-known as the co-founder of tech giant Microsoft, but after he stepped away from the company when the pandemic hit, he’s now known for his climate activism as well as his work on stopping the spread of COVID-19.
It’s something the philanthropist admits he’s concerned about.
“The world has come a long way in the fight against COVID-19,” he said. “But new variants of the virus could threaten progress we’ve made over the past year.”
Here are five things Bill Gates wants you to know about how viruses are, and aren’t, complicating the pandemic:
1. You’ve already dealt with a virus variant if you’ve gotten the flu shot
Flu – that is, the influenza virus – mutates quickly, and that’s why there’s a different flu shot every so often.
So, in and of itself, virus variants aren’t unusual; it just also means that new variants of the vaccine are required to tackle them, too, to keep up with the new strains.
Here’s Gates’ explanation on how the virus spreads through the body: “The coronavirus—like all viruses—has only one goal: to replicate itself. Every time the virus invades your cells, it tricks the cell into following the instructions encoded in its RNA to make more copies of the virus.
“When the cell is making a new virus, it has to copy those instructions.”
But copying those instructions is like taking a typing class in school, Gates said; it’s hard to retype the same thing without making a single mistake.
“The code for the virus that causes COVID-19 is around 30,000 letters long. That’s a lot of opportunities to mess up—which the coronavirus often does.
“Most mistakes lead to a virus that either is functionally identical or can’t replicate. But every once in a while, there’s a change that makes it easier for the virus to infect people or evade the immune system. When that change starts to spread through a population, a new variant emerges.”
WATCH BELOW: Concerns about COVID-19 variants continue
2. We’re seeing the same mutations, and this could be a good thing
COVID-19 mutates about half as quickly as influenza does, and is a “much simpler virus” relative to influenza, Gates said.
When COVID-19 mutates, it tends to happen in the same spot: in a certain ‘spike’ protein that sticks out of the surface of the virus.
“That spike protein is the key to COVID’s spread. Its shape is what enables the virus to grab onto human cells,” Gates explained.
“If the spike protein changes just a little, it might bind with cells more effectively (which makes the virus more transmissible) or become harder for the immune system to target (which makes people more susceptible to it). But if it changes too much, the virus can no longer gain the entry that’s key to its lifecycle.”
Because the mutations are only happening in this limited spot, the same mutations are appearing in different locations around the world rather than many different variations, the billionaire said.
“There’s clearly something about these specific mutations that makes them more likely to succeed than other changes.
“Some experts think we may have already seen the most concerning mutations that this virus is capable of. But COVID-19 has surprised us before, of course, and it could surprise us again.”
3. The virus is changing, but the path ahead is the same
Vaccines being created today seem to be able to prevent severe disease, even from new variants, so the next big question is whether the vaccine has to be updated to target new variants, Gates wrote.
Either way, stopping transmission is the best way to contain COVID-19 and preventing new variants, Gates said.
“For now, the key is to keep following best practices.
“If we remain vigilant about social distancing, wearing a mask, and getting vaccinated, we will bring the pandemic to an end much sooner.”
4. Variants highlight how important vaccine availability is
Put simply, the more that COVID-19 is in the world, spreading, the more chances it has to evolve – and learn to strengthen itself against vaccines.
“If we don’t get the vaccine out to every corner of the planet, we’ll have to live with the possibility that a much worse strain of the virus will emerge. We could even see a new variant emerge that evades existing vaccines altogether.”
Through an initiative called COVAX, Gates’ foundation is working with global organisations such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI) to distribute vaccines to low-income countries.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was crucial to setting up GAVI, and made the first US$70 million investment needed to set up the organisation in 1999.
COVAX has said it will be able to deliver 300 million vaccine doses by mid-2021, but Gates doesn’t think this is enough.
“The world is going to need a lot more if we’re going to truly stamp out the threat of COVID-19.
“I hope rich world countries continue to support COVAX’s work, even as life starts to get back to normal in some parts of the world,” he said
5. ‘We can do better next time’
If the world encountered another pandemic of a pathogen spreading across the globe, we should expect it to mutate and adapt around attempts to prevent it, just as we're seeing with COVID-19, according to Gates.
“I hope the difference next time is that we’re better prepared to spot these variants earlier.”
All the tools and protocols that medical health experts, researchers and scientists have put in place now to monitor virus variations will be invaluable in the future, he said.
“There’s no doubt that variants complicate our efforts to bring an end to this pandemic. Even once the worst is behind us, we’ll need to remain vigilant. Fortunately, we know what we need to do to stop them from emerging.
“For now, the best thing you can do to protect yourself is to follow public health guidelines and get vaccinated as soon as you’re eligible.”