2022-10-01| Special

Bill Gates Speaks at the Illumina Genomics Forum

by Max Heirich
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The third day of the Genomics Forum began with Bill Gates taking center stage, discussing how genomics fulfills the Gates Foundation’s ambitious goals. Gates talked about using genomics in disease tracking and elimination, preventing the next pandemic, malnutrition, and more. After his talk, Gates sat down with Illumina’s Vice President of Scientific Research, Cande Rogert, delving more deeply into the usage of genomics. 

Related Article: Illumina Genomics Forum Kicks Off With A Conversation With President Barack Obama

Achieving Disease Eradication with Genomics

Bill Gates began his talk by recalling his shock upon discovering how little was known about disease causes twenty years ago when he began his foundation. He listed off how, then, the pathogenic cause for diseases like pneumonia or Malaria was unknown and what interventions might have been able to save a life. However, Gates rebounded with, “In every one of these areas, it’s the genomics revolution that’s created the platform that allows us to gain those understandings and actually come up with new interventions.”

After asking rhetorically what the report card on global health is, Gates reported that the number of child deaths under the age of five fell from ten million at the turn of the century to under five million. A part played in this massive reduction is the near eradication of the poliovirus, having a 99% caseload reduction. 

Despite this good news, Gates claims we’re “not in good shape” to continue this trend. At fault for progress’ stalling,  or even reversal in some cases, is the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have to accelerate innovation,” Gates offered as a solution, “the only way we’re going to get back on track is a combination of better tools, where genomics plays a big role, better targeting, where the surveillance by genomics plays a big role.” 

As an example, Gates brought up Malaria, which he cited as still killing 627,000 people annually. Though this number is a reduction of what its mortality rate used to be, Gates highlighted its constant evolution as a cause to increase sequencing efforts. “We can only target our Malaria control programs if we see all that data,” Gates asserted, “There’s been really great work in sequencing some of the mosquito genetics and the pathogen genetics so that we’re constantly understanding how prevalent is it, was it important from a different area, is there a new threat going on.” 

Bill Gates on Genomic Nutrition

“You know, we’ve never really understood nutrition,” Gates claimed before elaborating on how children’s microbiomes cause two children on similar diets in similar areas to either have normal or stunted development. 

However, Gates claims that with sequencing, we’re finally understanding the microbiome’s complex interactions. He elaborated further on how the Gates foundation uses these insights for nutrition interventions. These designed foods encourage the good part of the microbiome while discouraging negative effects. “We’re seeing that that’s associated with higher growth,” said Gates. “In the case of nutrition, these interventions could be very, very cheap.”

Gates then expanded the topic of microbiomes from the nutritional sense, applying the topic to subjects such as cancer and HIV. Examination of each affected area’s microbiomes could lead researchers to better understand how they function and the best intervention methods. 

Gates began the conclusion of his talk with an assertion that genomic sequencing needs to be done in an equitable manner. This is not only for spreading the benefits of the march of technology to middle or low-income countries but for improving the foundation of genomics as well. After acknowledging the setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gates expressed hope and excitement over the future progress of genomics. “I’m excited about how we can take [genomic] capability and use it for dramatic improvements in human health all over the world.”

A Conversation Delving Deeper Into Genomics

Immediately after his talk, Bill Gates sat down with Illumina’s Vice President of Scientific Research, Cande Rogert, further discussing genomics. Right off the bat, Rogert asked about the role of genomics for non-infectious diseases, specifically in the field of oncology. Gates said that the innovation for “rich world diseases like cancer” is fantastic. “I tell all my friends to take the Galleri Test,” Gates told Rogert, “why not?” Gates went on to say that though current cancer treatments are more expensive than the Foundation’s goal of saving lives for $1000 each, time is on their side for these medicines to become cheaper. 

When Rogert asked Gates about how soon quantum computers might assist in genomic analysis, Gates expressed more enthusiasm about AI machine learning. Gates said that while, eventually, quantum computers will be of assistance, AI machine learning already delivers results in the meantime.

Near the end of the panel, Rogert asked Gates what he thought would be the greatest risk of a new health issue similar to COVID-19. Gates responded with two answers: cross-over from the animal world and bioterrorism.

Gates said the former cause is much higher due to the size of the human population. “I’d say the risk- there’s at least a 50% risk that we’ll see another natural pandemic in the next 20 years.” However, Gates assured those present that the rapid creation of vaccines in preparation would mitigate some of the damage. On bioterrorism, Gates lamented that the improvement of tools for an intentional attack is improving faster than the world is prepared for. “Between the two of those, you can justify a little preparation,” he said. 

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