Highlights from Bill Gates’ CBS interview on return to school, COVID-19 vaccine conspiracies, more

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates speaks at the University of Washington in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates addressed various coronavirus-related topics in a 30-minute interview with CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell that aired Wednesday.

Gates, a global health expert, has been commenting on the pandemic’s progress almost weekly from his Seattle-area home base via video links with media outlets ranging from TED to CNN to Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

Here are the key takeaways from his interview with CBS News (comments edited for brevity and clarity):

On if we’re witnessing a “disaster” he alluded to previously if certain steps weren’t taken: 

Bill Gates: “There’s a lot of things we can go back and say, why wasn’t there a federal testing plan, why didn’t we get the turnaround on the testing down, why aren’t we getting tests out to low-income minority communities? Serious mistakes were made, some of which were because we didn’t understand the virus very well. The understanding about the importance of masks came later than we wish it had. And then the U.S. had the lowest compliance with mask use of any country. We didn’t have the leadership message there. We have a lot of regrets, but we do have innovations in the pipeline that should reduce the death rate, and eventually by the end of next year get us out of this terrible situation.”

On what needs to be done immediately: 

Gates: “Some of the policies were a mistake. Opening up bars — the economic benefit versus the infection risk of a lot of activities like that made it a mistake. Now, in most of the U.S., we need to absolutely avoid those things. We need to distance, we need to use maks. We’ve seen that in Europe they had the dramatic fall-off. It didn’t spread into the other communities and that’s because their leadership communicated with a clear voice and their scientists were encouraged to go on TV instead of banned. So the population benefitted and the death rate in those countries has gone down very dramatically.”

On the state of COVID-19 testing: 

Gates: “The lag times that we have today are completely unacceptable. It’s making most of our tests pretty much worthless.”

On whether President’s Trump’s claim that the U.S. has the “best mortality rate” in the world is factually correct: 

Gates: “Not at all, not even close. By almost every measure, the U.S. is one of the worst. I think we can change that, but it’s an ugly picture.”

On children returning to school: 

Gates: “Fortunately, the actual number of young people who get sick is pretty modest. The big challenge is how to get the teachers and staff in and to avoid those kids being a source of infection as they go back into their households. … By 2021, which is a long time, I think we’ll have things under control enough.

“It’s extremely important [that kids return to school]. And so no one should think that this a totally political thing where it’s black and white. … We’re kind of stuck on the ‘open them up completely’ vs. ‘hey, if there’s any risk, I don’t want to go work there.’ Those are two extreme positions. It’s time for a discussion where it’s not this black and white, go in everyday versus not going in at all.”

On if he’d send his children to public school during the pandemic:

Gates: “If a school is being careful, then yes. Now, if they live in a multigenerational household where you have old people that they are exposed to, you have to look at how hard it would be to reduce the grandparents’ exposure to those kids. If you live in a single generational household and have a school that is being careful, then I do think it’s reasonable to say that my kid can get that educational opportunity, particularly as the kids are younger. People have freedom to make choices here, but we do need to remember it’s mostly transmission into the older people that drives these really horrific deaths per day.”

On who gets the COVID-19 vaccine first: 

Gates: “That’s in discussion. Clearly the U.S., by funding factories in the U.S., will get priority. But if we can have other factories … and this is where the U.S. government’s traditional generosity in global health will be needed, our foundation will be needed, and other countries. We want to make sure we don’t have people dying just because they can’t afford to have access to the vaccine.”

On how many doses of a COVID-19 vaccine people will need: 

Gates: “None of the vaccines at this point appear like they’ll work with a single dose. That was the hope at the very beginning. …We hope just two [doses], although in the elderly, sometimes it takes more. Making sure we have lots of elderly people in the trial will give us that data.”

On concerns with a growing anti-vaccination disinformation campaign on social media: 

Gates: “It’s always a concern because vaccines are so key to keeping measles deaths down, helping us eradicate polio. Vaccines are so important. They’ve played the primary role in cutting childhood death in half over the last 20 years. So explaining how careful we are about vaccine safety is super important. During a pandemic I can understand people’s anxiety levels going up. But explaining what the testing is doing … we will need a lot of people to be willing to take the vaccine to stop the transmission.”

On conspiracy theories that accuse Gates of wanting a COVID-19 vaccine to plant microchips into people:

Gates: “There is no connection between any of these vaccines and any tracking type thing — at all. I don’t know where that came from.”

On a YouGov poll showing that 44% of Republicans surveyed believe Gates is plotting the microchip vaccination campaign:

Gates: “Some of these are deeply ironic. Our foundation is about reducing death and bringing equity to health. Yet the idea that we get accused of creating chips or the virus … I think we just need to get the truth out there. We need to explain our values so people understand why we’re involved in this work and why we’re willing to put hundreds or billions to accelerate progress. It’s a little unclear to me but I hope it will die down as people get the facts.”

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