When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, governments around the world struggled to respond effectively. Amidst this turmoil, four non-governmental global health organizations emerged as influential players in the battle against the virus.
These organizations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gavi, the Wellcome Trust, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), stepped in to take on roles traditionally played by governments.
Through their expertise, connections, and relationships with pharmaceutical companies, these organizations made significant contributions to the fight against the pandemic. They identified potential vaccine makers, invested in tests, treatments, and vaccines, and worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop a global distribution plan for COVID-19 tools. However, the distribution plan did not fully deliver on its promises.
These organizations collectively spent nearly $10 billion on COVID-19 efforts since 2020, an amount comparable to the leading U.S. agency responsible for international COVID-19 response. They also donated $1.4 billion to the WHO, although the distribution initiative they helped create fell short of its intended goals. These organizations had high-level access to governments and spent significant sums lobbying lawmakers and officials.
Some civil society groups in poorer nations expressed concerns about these Western-dominated organizations making life-and-death decisions affecting their regions. Notably, the Gates Foundation’s opposition to waiving intellectual property rights raised criticism that it prioritized the interests of pharmaceutical companies over the needs of people in low-income nations.
Despite promises to address equity, low-income countries faced challenges in accessing life-saving vaccines during the worst waves of the pandemic. Furthermore, leaders of these organizations disagreed with activists’ calls to lift intellectual property protections to increase vaccine supplies and save lives.
Overall, this investigation sheds light on the shifting power dynamics in global health response during a crisis, where non-governmental organizations took on pivotal roles, often operating without the same level of accountability as governments.