Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, through his foundation, has spent billions of dollars on health initiatives in developing countries, and amid the coronavirus pandemic has pledged funding for seven pharmaceutical factories so that when a coronavirus vaccine is approved, production can start more quickly. Those actions have opened him to claims that vaccination projects that his foundation funded had nefarious intentions.
In several viral tweets last week, Candace Owens, an author and conservative provocateur, accused Gates and the World Health Organization of experimenting with vaccines on children in Africa and India:
Bill Gates @BillGatesHalting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds. Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs @WHO now more than ever.
The conspiracy was further elevated by Fox Nation personalities Diamond and Silk:
Candace Owens @RealCandaceOBill Gates & @WHO have used African & Indian tribal children to experiment w/ non-FDA approved drug vaccines. Both countries raised red flags about the unethical nature of these trials and were ignored. Here is an academic review that everyone should read. https://t.co/GTkE7HlLhM
The claims have also made their way into Facebook groups where anti-quarantine protests have been organized.
The “academic review” linked to in Owens’s tweet is titled “Accountability of International NGOs: Human Rights Violations in Healthcare Provision in Developing Countries and the Effectiveness of Current Measures” and is authored by Sharmeen Ahmed, who was at the time the a student at the Golden Gate University School of Law. The article was published by The Annual Survey of International & Comparative Law, a journal published by Golden Gate students and faculty.
The article’s introduction reads: “Critics have shared concerns on the Gates Foundation and potential policies on population control.” The basis for these “population control” concerns is a TED talk Bill Gates gave in 2010, which featured a comment that was taken out of context and has been debunked by fact-checking website Snopes. Gates explained that his approach to vaccines is based on data indicating a declining death rate leads to a declining birth rate. In countries where childhood mortality is high, Gates wrote in a Gates Foundation letter, “parents choose to have enough kids to give them a high chance that several will survive to support them as they grow old. As the number of kids who survive to adulthood goes up, parents can achieve this goal without having as many children. … When health improves, people have smaller families and the government has more resources per person, so improving nutrition and education becomes much easier.” Vaccines lower childhood mortality rates, and thus reduce population growth, but not in the malevolent way Gates’ 2010 comments were interpreted by his critics.
Ahmed’s article explores three Gates Foundation-sponsored vaccination programs, one in India and two in Africa. The programs were part of partnerships with the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) and the World Health Organization, among other organizations. Starting in 2009, the program in India delivered human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccines to 23,500 girls. Contrary to Owens’s assertion, both vaccines used during the distribution in India had previously received FDA approval--Gardasil in 2006 and Cervarix on October 16, 2009. Cervarix had been approved by other countries years before, with both Australia and the European Union approving the vaccine in 2007. The purpose of the HPV program in India was not, as Owens and others have implied, to experiment with untested drugs on impoverished children, but to “assist India’s public health system in identifying the most effective and affordable strategies to help prevent cervical cancer, a disease that kills an estimated 143,000 Indian women every year,” according to former PATH President Dr. Christopher Elias. The project was carried out in partnership with the Indian Council of Medical Research, an organization funded by the Indian government, and the state governments in the areas in which the vaccines were being delivered.
The vaccinations were halted in early 2010 after local media outlets claimed seven girls had died after receiving the HPV vaccine. After investigating the deaths, the director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research stated that “two deaths were due to poisoning, one died of drowning, and another due to pyrexia of unknown origin.” A committee formed by the Indian government to investigate the deaths confirmed the director general’s findings—further clarifying that the poisoning deaths were due to insecticide—and found that the other three deaths were due to snakebite, malaria, and a disease “which cannot be linked possibly to HPV.”
The Ahmed article relies on findings from a report by Indian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Health and Family that itself includes misinformation. The committee asserted, among other things, that PATH had not properly registered as a legal entity when it began working in India. However, this effort began well before the HPV vaccine project, and PATH had the proper documentation by May 2009. The biggest concern with the project turned out to be improperly filed consent forms—some forms lacked witness signatures, while others did not have dates, and a few did not have signatures that matched the names on the form. There were also worries that because of the low literacy rate in some areas in which the vaccine was distributed, some parents of participants may not have fully understood the form they signed. In all, the standing committee reprimanded PATH, but the organization is still allowed to operate in India, as is the Gates Foundation.
Presumably, Owens’s claims of “infertilizing” are about the HPV vaccine, though the CDC states “there is no current evidence that HPV vaccines cause reproductive problems in women.”
In Africa, the Gates Foundation sponsored two programs that Ahmed discusses: the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative and the Meningitis Vaccine Project. In 2010, the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative gave malaria vaccinations to 10,307 children and rabies or meningococcal serogroup C conjugate vaccinations to 5,153 children as a part of the third phase of clinical tests for the malaria drug. The non-malaria vaccines served as a control group against which to compare the results and side effects of the malaria vaccine.
Ahmed claims that the Malaria Vaccine Initiative “resulted in 151 deaths and caused serious adverse effects, including paralysis and seizure in 1048 of 5949 children aged 5-17 months.” This claim results from a massive misreading of the results of the initiative, which recorded all deaths of participants and their causes. Many of the causes—like HIV infection, drowning, and measles—obviously cannot be linked to vaccination. (You can see the full lists of causes of death in Table 11 of this document.) None of the deaths were linked to the vaccine.
The claim of paralysis and seizure is similarly misrepresented: 1,048 children in the age group in question reported “serious adverse events” after taking the vaccine. It’s important to note that “serious adverse events” is not the same thing as “serious adverse effects”; participants were asked to track all serious health changes they saw post-vaccination, the vast majority of which are unrelated to the vaccine. (You can see the full list of serious adverse events in Table 3 of this document.) Only 10 children from the ages of 5 months to 17 months months had side effects caused by the vaccine, reporting 12 events: “7 seizures, 3 episodes of pyrexia [fever], 1 episode of myositis [muscle inflammation], and 1 injection-site reaction.” Three children in that age group experienced side effects: “1 injection-site reaction, 1 episode of pyrexia, and 1 episode of febrile convulsion [a convulsion caused by fever].” All children who experienced seizures recovered, and paralysis was not reported as a side effect, or even a serious adverse event, by any of the participants. Additionally, no parties raised ethical concerns about the initiative and it was declared a success after the vaccine was found to reduce the number of infant malaria cases by a third.
Ahmed’s paper provides little more than a basic description of the Meningitis Vaccine Project and only briefly mentions that there were reports of consent violation that were “unsubstantiated” and reports of side effects that were deemed “normal” and “not warrant[ing] safety concerns.” All reports of consent violation and side effects occurred in Burkina Faso, just one of the participating countries. Ahmed fails to mention that only four instances of side effects tied to the vaccine were actually reported in Burkina Faso: Two patients had skin conditions that can be easily treated and resolve themselves in days at most. The vaccine used in the project had regulatory approval from the necessary bodies and went through clinical trials before countrywide use of the drug began.
The Sharmeen Ahmed article used as the basis for claims that Gates used Third World countries as testing grounds for dangerous drugs is riddled with errors. India was the only country to raise ethical concerns about the vaccine program sponsored by Gates, and its concerns were largely unfounded or minimal. The HPV vaccines used in India were FDA-approved, contrary to multiple claims by Owens, and the meningitis vaccine was approved by the World Health Organization and other national governments before it was widely used. While the Malaria Vaccine Initiative was a clinical trial, it met all regulatory and ethical standards.
If you have a claim you would like to see us fact check, please send us an email at email@example.com. If you would like to suggest a correction to this piece or any other Dispatch article, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.