Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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Gates-backed test malaria vaccine is celebrated, half glass full | 

African child with cerebral malaria
African child with cerebral malaria
Mike Urban

An experimental malaria vaccine, made by GSK with backing and support on the research side from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Seattle-based PATH, has (again) been shown to protect half the children in the study were immunized against malaria.

The results, announced today in Durban, South Africa, are pretty much the same as earlier findings that continue to emerge from a long, ongoing study of GlaxoSmithKline’s RTS,S vaccine.

The scientific gist of the latest findings, as was reported back in 2008, is that the vaccine appears to protect about half the kids from getting sick, its ability to protect drops significantly following vaccination, it requires repeat doses and GSK estimates it will cost a few dollars at least.

Is that a glass half full or half empty? Continue reading

GM food fight: Why the Gates Foundation wants to make rice golden | 

Golden Rice grain being held by IRRI scientist Parminder Virk
Golden Rice grain being held by IRRI scientist Parminder Virk
IRRI

Imagine if you could prevent hundreds of millions of children from suffering malnutrition maladies such as blindness, stunting, poor health overall and death by simply dropping a missing vitamin in their daily bowl of rice. Or by messing around with a few genes.

That’s essentially what scientists, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, hope to accomplish with a new form of rice dubbed ‘golden rice.’

It’s golden because, unlike natural rice, it has been genetically modified to produce the very yellow nutrient and precursor to vitamin A known as beta carotene. Experts estimate that 250 million poor children don’t get enough vitamin A in their diet, at least half a million die, go blind or otherwise suffer greatly for the lack of it.

Despite its intended humanitarian purpose, golden rice is highly controversial – because it is a GMO, a genetically modified organism.

For example, a report today from NPR’s Dan Charles, Golden Rice Study Violated Ethical Rules, is the latest in a long-running dispute over the still-experimental foodstuff. Here’s an earlier report from Nature on the same ‘scandal’ in China that erupted because unwitting volunteers were reportedly fed the golden rice to test for nutritional benefit but not told they were eating a GMO.

Further, in the Philippines where golden rice is under study, field tests of the crop have been ripped up and some Filipino farmers have vowed to prevent the GM crop from being approved for the market.

The scientists found that the golden rice did a good job at providing the nutrient, but the researchers were punished by Chinese officials and lost their jobs for failing to warn participants that they were eating GMO rice. Tufts researchers, in the NPR story today, said the sackings appeared justified for breaching research ethics.

Vitamin A deficiency worldwide
Vitamin A deficiency worldwide
Wikimedia

Missed in all this is the simple fact that the Chinese study did show golden rice can prevent deadly vitamin A deficiency with no apparent adverse health effects. Informed consent is important in research, of course, but perhaps it’s worth noting that most Americans are already eating GMOs on a daily basis (most of our corn and soy, for example) to little furor. Nobody here feeding us this stuff is getting fired or embroiled in scandal.

That may all change, as I noted yesterday, as the battle over GM foods heats up with Seattle shaping up to become one of the main fronts. Accurately or not, the Gates Foundation is regarded as a leading advocate for the expanded use of GM crops globally.

“We fully expect golden rice will continue to be a lightning rod in this debate,” said Alex Reid, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation on its agricultural programs. Continue reading

Five reasons Seattle is ground zero in the global debate over GM foods | 

Vandana Shiva at Yes! confab says No to Gates Foundation's support of GM foods
Vandana Shiva at Yes! confab says No to Gates Foundation’s support of GM foods

Seattle, and the state of Washington in general, is shaping up to become ground zero in the increasingly heated global debate over the use of genetically modified (GM) foods. Here are five reasons why:

  • Initiative 522, a state ballot measure that would require labeling of GM foods, has so far seen significant public support, according to opinion polls. Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield has lent his high-profile to the cause, joining Puget Consumer Co-op, Clif Bar and others.
  • Monsanto, a world leader in developing GM seeds and crops, has significantly beefed up the opposition to the initiative by recently contributing $4.6 million to the efforts aimed at defeating it. A similar ballot measure in California last year brought in $44 million from Monsanto and others in agribusiness opposed to it.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s agriculture program has supported research into GM crops for the developing world and launched a GM-friendly initiative called the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
  • The Gates Foundation’s position on GM crops has prompted a counter-offensive launch of organizations like Seattle-based Agra Watch and others. Critics contend AGRA and the philanthropy are promoting (not just exploring) the use of GM crops in poor countries as a means to counter the regulatory constraints and general antipathy towards GM in Europe and other wealthier nations.
  • Officials reported last week that they were investigating a case of suspected GM crop contamination of an alfalfa field. A Washington state farmer had his crops (which he believed were natural alfalfa) rejected when they tested positive for GM traits. If confirmed, this would be the second known case of GM crop contamination in the U.S. since a similar episode, involving banned GM wheat, in Oregon earlier this year.

Last week, one more sign that this region is shaping up to become the focal point of the battle over GM foods was a sold-out talk at Seattle Town Hall. Sponsored by Yes! magazine, the noted Indian food activist and scientist Vandana Shiva was the keynote speaker for the Yes! confab — and emphatically called upon all those gathered there to say No to GM foods. Continue reading

A chat with outgoing chief of the Gates Foundation, Jeff Raikes | 

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the world’s biggest philanthropy, but big doesn’t by itself translate into best.

Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes and Bill Gates in Nigeria with health worker on polio campaign
Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes and Bill Gates in Nigeria with health worker on polio campaign
Gates Foundation

Making the Gates Foundation better has been Jeff Raikes’ job for the last five years or so. He has presided over dramatic growth – from a few hundred employees to now more than 1200 – and a significant reorganization internally. Raikes, a former top exec at Microsoft, announced he will be stepping down soon so Humanosphere interviewed him to get his take on the current state of the Gates Foundation.

Q What’s the biggest difference between helping run a company and helping run a philanthropy?

JR: There are some similarities but when you’re running a philanthropy you have a different set of metrics or goals or priorities. I’m somewhat stating the obvious but that’s a very important part of how you think about your leadership and how you structure the organization. At the same time, you need good people, good financial systems and a clear strategy. So as CEO there are some common features.

Q The Gates Foundation has changed a lot in the last five years. Bill Gates said the foundation is in the best shape it’s ever been thanks to you. Can you give me your perspective on the changes? Continue reading

Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes to step down | 

Jeff RaikesThe CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, former Microsoft executive Jeff Raikes, announced today he will be stepping down after five years running the world’s largest philanthropy. Raikes, who met with staff today to talk about his decision, sent out an email as well:

I am proud of the work we’ve all done together in the past five years. We are having an impact on people’s lives every single day, and we are set up to keep on having an even bigger impact in the years to come.

Raikes has presided over rapid growth and a major internal re-organization at the Gates Foundation, including efforts made to improve the philanthropy’s relationship with grantees, its reputed ‘sensitivity’ to criticism and transparency concerns.

Here are a few other news reports from The Seattle Times, Wall Street Journal and Geekwire on the announcement which, like Humanosphere, so far pretty much only repeat the basics of the Gates Foundation press release. We hope to talk with Raikes later today about his tenure.

Gates-backed tech toilet poops out in India | 

Bill Gates reviews one contestant in the Toilet Re-Invention contest.
Bill Gates reviews one contestant in the Toilet Re-Invention contest.
Gates Foundation

One of the most popular missions lately for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been to re-invent the toilet, an initiative it launched nearly two years ago to great media fanfare as part of its broader program aimed at improving sanitation and water.

Billions of people lack access to proper sanitation, making this a huge global public health threat, and need. Some news stories:

Time Gates Foundation funding toilets of the future 

NPR Bill Gates crowns toilet innovators

Reuters Gates Foundation puts money on solar-powered toilet

Today, according to India media, one of the winning toilet innovators in the philanthropy’s contest, Eram Scientific, has failed to attact poopers nearly a year after introduction. As The Hindu reports, an official says part of the problem is:

“People don’t know how to use these technologically advanced toilets. They are afraid to use it; they fear being locked up…”

Bill Gates is on his way to India so maybe he’ll swing by to check on this project and see if he can flush out the problem. To be fair, this is why this project is part of the foundation’s Grand Challenges program, which is designed to test out high-risk ideas and learn from failure.

Bill Gates’ humanitarian plan for world (vaccination) domination | 

Bill Gates vaccine
UN

Bill Gates loves vaccines.

He says so all the time. The media, as well as the social media hipsterverse, regularly report on this love affair, usually cheering along with Gates in favor of the cause of polio eradication — a cause which was advanced recently at a meeting he and other glitterati convened in Abu Dhabi, the world’s richest city.

Gates says the very foundation of his foundation comes from his realization in the 1990s that kids were dying for lack of access to a vaccine we in the rich world take for granted. As a result, boosting vaccination worldwide became the prime mover, the raison d’être, for what would soon be the world’s biggest philanthropy.

Yet few appreciate today just how revolutionary, and unlikely, was the start of this love affair.

Promoting this powerful, fundamental tool for children’s health may look now like an obvious humanitarian thing for a philanthropist to do. But it wasn’t either obvious or that celebrated when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation started down this path (pun intended) in the 1990s.

The Gates Foundation’s push for a revolution in immunization was greeted, from the outset, by a weird combination of controversy and apathy. Continue reading

Geek Heretic explains why technology can’t solve the poverty problem | 

Kentaro Toyama is a geek heretic, or at least, that’s what Tom Paulson dubbed him last year. Now it’s the working title for Toyama’s upcoming book. Toyama is a renowned computer scientist and expert in computer-human visual interactions. He helped launch Microsoft Research in India in 2005 and was dispatched by Bill Gates to find technological solutions to poverty and inequity. After giving it his best, Toyama decided technology, though useful, cannot fix poverty.

Kentaro Toyama
Kentaro Toyama in the studio

One of the commenters on Toyama’s ideas last year wasn’t convinced: “If he is only talking about current things like personal computers, sure. But when we get 3D Printers that can make more replicators, nanobots and the like, he is totally wrong.”

It’s certainly tempting to think that next generation of futuristic technologies can change the world. But Toyama has seen innovative technology rendered powerless, harmful even, in settings of severe poverty. He says the problems require even deeper solutions.

So we get deep into the issues in the podcast. Listen in below.