In 2016, a social advocacy group called Global Justice Now issued a report titled “Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?” The report criticized the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for pursuing a strategy of funding projects of companies in which it holds a financial interest, which means that it has an “interest in the ongoing profitability” of those companies.1
In other words, the perception that the Gates Foundation is just another nonprofit engaged in doing good works is not entirely accurate. The report noted that the Gates Foundation’s program is not a “neutral, charitable strategy for which the world should be thankful that a rich man is deciding to spend his money on good causes.” It makes the Gates Foundation out to be more of a money-making venture than a typical charitable organization.1 2
The Gates Foundation provides billions of dollar in grant money each year, including $4.2 billion in 2015 and $4.3 billion in 2016.3 These grants are made to a wide variety of companies, organizations, universities, and government agencies—a total of 1,651 grants in 2015 and 1,561 in 2016.4
But the Gates Foundation also invests in businesses whose primary goal is profit. As with any investor or shareholder, the Gates Foundation expects a financial return on its investments. There is nothing inherently wrong or illegal about this. The problem comes when there is some question about the driving force behind how a powerful and influential philanthropic foundation like Gates spends its money. Is the Gates Foundation’s allegiance weighted more toward altruism and humanitarian causes or making profits?
In 2010, the Gates Foundation purchased 500,000 shares of the agribusiness and chemicals giant Monsanto for $23 million.5 The foundation was heavily criticized for that investment by social and environmental activists who could not imagine any good could possibly come from such an “unholy” business alliance.6
In 2013, the Gates Foundation bought $5 million worth of stock in Anacor Pharmaceuticals of Palo Alto, CA. It also paid Anacor $17 million to perform research on drugs to treat worm diseases and tuberculosis. Last year, Pfizer acquired Anacor for $5.2 billion, netting the Gates Foundation a windfall of $86.7 million. It turned out to be a great business decision by the “non-profit” foundation.7 8
More recently, in 2015, the Gates Foundation invested $52 million in biotechnology company Curevac of Tübingen, Germany, taking a four percent equity stake in the German firm. That was a particularly interesting business move.9 10
Curevac is a pioneer in the development of mRNA (messenger Ribonucleic Acid) vaccine technology. According to a study in RNA Biology journal, the technology is viewed as a “game changer” in the development and manufacture of vaccines.11
The experimental mRNA vaccines are being designed to mimic infection differently from traditional vaccines. Instead of introducing an antigen into the body to stimulate an immune response, mRNA vaccines contain the “genetic information to produce the antigen”—they would provide “instructions to the body to produce the antigen itself.”12
This is a much simpler process than the culture of virus in eggs. Egg cultures, the more common way of producing vaccines, can provoke allergic reactions; the in vitro production of RNA avoids this possibility. Producing RNA vaccines is also less expensive than producing the full antigen protein. Another advantage is that the production of RNA-based vaccines is more rapid compared to production of traditional vaccines. This rapid production could be a major advantage in face of sudden pandemics. Moreover, RNA-based vaccines may be effective against pandemics because they also provide more flexibility to prevent or treat pathogens that are rapidly evolving.12
The Gates Foundation seems to understand the revolutionary potential of mRNA vaccine technology, as does probably every player in the vaccine manufacturing industry. Earlier this year, Sanofi Pasteur’s vice-president for global research Nicholas Jackson said of mRNA technology:
It’s one of those things that you can’t afford to not be involved in, because if it is the next platform it is a complete game changer. It’s going to be like PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) and change molecular biology. That’s the reason why there has been a frenzy of hundreds of millions invested in messenger RNA technology… 13
When the Gates Foundation agreed to invest in Curevac in March 2015, the foundation’s co-chair Bill Gates said, “If we can teach the body to create its own natural defenses, we can revolutionize the way we treat and prevent diseases. Technologies like mRNA give us confidence to place big bets for the future.”9 There is certainly a humanitarian spirit to the statement. But there is also an entrepreneurial one. And that’s the troubling part.
Is the primary motivation behind the Gates Foundation to rake in big profits or is it, as it widely advertises, to improve the quality of life?14
1 Curtis M. Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good? Global Justice Now June 2016.
2 Norris S. Report Slams Gates Foundation for Self-Serving Agenda, Corporate Ties. NonProfit PRO Jan. 26, 2016.
3 Foundation Fact Sheet. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
4 Awarded Grants. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
5 Vidal J. Why is the Gates foundation investing in GM giant Monsanto? The Guardian Sept. 29, 2010.
6 Bartlett S. Wikileaks Exposes Unholy Alliance of U.S. Government, Bill Gates, And Monsanto. Organic Consumers Association Jan. 25, 2014.
7 Ward L. Anacor Pharmaceuticals gets investment, contract with Gates Foundation. Silicon Valley Business Journal Apr. 8, 2013.
8 Reuters. How the Bill & Melinda Gates and Wellcome charities profit from helping biotech. VentureBeat May 30, 2016.
9 Press Release. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and CureVac Collaborate to Accelerate the Development of Transformative Vaccine Technology. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Mar. 5, 2015.
10 Hoffman S. Rabid about Curevac. Handelsblatt Global July 26, 2017.
11 Schlake T, Thess A, Fotin-Mleczek M, Kallen KJ. Developing mRNA-vaccine technologies. RNA Biol. Nov. 1, 2012; 9(11): 1319–1330.
12 Hubaud A. RNA vaccines: a novel technology to prevent and treat disease. Harvard University May 5, 2015.
13 Stanton D. Messenger RNA a ‘game-changer’ for vaccine industry, Sanofi Pasteur. in-PharmaTechnologist.com Apr. 26, 2017.
14 Who We Are. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.