I had an amazing trip to Senegal last month. I always love getting the chance to travel and see the remarkable work the foundation’s partners are doing firsthand. These visits leave me more energized than ever to go to work every day—and my time in Senegal was no exception.
Senegal is a particularly interesting country to visit, because it has made exemplary progress improving the health of its people thanks to a focus on community-led care and many years of smart policymaking. Some of the statistics are mind-blowing: Since 1992, the country has cut its stunting rate in half. Since 2000, the number of Senegalese children who die before their 5th birthday has dropped by 70 percent. And since 2005, the number of women giving birth in health facilities has increased from 62 percent to 80 percent. It’s the perfect place to talk about progress.
One of the highlights of my visit was a trip to the Institut Pasteur de Dakar, or IPD—a research center that has been pushing the frontiers of global health for nearly a century. The facility does it all: IPD plays a key role in monitoring for disease outbreaks in the region; produces millions of diagnostics every year; serves as an educational hub for the next generation of health workers and biomanufacturing workers; and will soon resume manufacturing vaccines.
It was inspiring to meet with brilliant Senegalese scientists who are doing remarkable work to keep their country healthy. Senegal’s health transformation is, in large part, a testament to their dedication and deep understanding of their communities, and I loved talking to them about how they’re constantly evolving to meet the needs of the moment. For example, when COVID hit in 2020, IPD quickly built up a test manufacturing facility. They’re now in the process of expanding that capacity so they can produce other essential tests, like one for measles and rubella.
I was also excited to attend the annual meeting of the Grand Challenges initiative in Dakar last month. The Gates Foundation launched Grand Challenges 20 years ago with a single goal in mind: to identify the biggest problems in health and give grants to the researchers who might solve them. Our hope was to inspire more brilliant scientists to think more ambitiously about transforming health in low-income countries. We hoped to create a scientific community that had support to sustain R&D for the benefit of billions of people whose health needs had been neglected.
In 2003, we put forth 14 Grand Challenges. The initial list included developing a vaccine that didn’t require refrigeration, creating a TB treatment for latent infection, and inventing a needle-free drug delivery system. In the years since, we’ve issued more than 200 challenges—and we even launched our first AI-specific call-to-action earlier this year.
I was lucky to spend a lot of time in Senegal with amazing scientists working on the next big breakthrough. Here are 5 of the coolest innovations I saw:
An AI trainer that teaches health workers in India how to treat high-risk pregnancies.
Here’s a devastating statistic: One woman dies in childbirth every 2 minutes. Amrita Mahale and the team at ARMMAN are using artificial intelligence to improve the odds for new mothers in India. Their large language model will one day teach health workers how to treat high-risk pregnancies. The training chatbot can be used in both English and Telugu, and the coolest part is that it automatically adjusts to the experience level of the person using it. Whether you’re a brand-new nurse or a midwife with decades of experience, ARMMAN’s trainer can arm you with the knowledge needed to save lives.
A low-cost mRNA vaccine platform that puts manufacturing where it’s needed most. mRNA vaccines helped prevent millions of deaths during the height of the COVID pandemic. A company called Quantoom developed a new platform that will make it cheaper and easier to build and run factories that can be adapted to make different mRNA vaccines.
I was proud to announce that the foundation is investing $40 million to scale up local mRNA vaccine manufacturing in low- and middle-income countries—which includes funding for IPD to use Quantoom’s platform.
This will increase supply, lower costs, guard against the possibility of vaccine hoarding in emergencies, and provide a path for local scientists to discover and develop their own vaccines.
A new way of tracking mosquitoes on the molecular level to stop malaria. Cases of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria are increasing for the first time in decades. Although climate change is a big contributor, other reasons include conflicts and drug resistance.
Fortunately, Isabella Oyier at the Kenya Medical Research Institute is fighting back against mosquito evolution. She uses molecular epidemiology to track mosquitoes who have the genes that cause drug resistance and integrate it into national malaria surveillance and monitoring efforts. This will give stakeholders more insight into where resistance is spreading—and how to stop it.
A novel approach to treating a common microbiome disorder. Our bodies are home to more microbial cells than human cells, and the good bacteria in our microbiome play an essential role keeping bad bacteria in check. When that balance is off, you get diseases like bacterial vaginosis—a common disorder that, among other problems, can make women more susceptible to HIV infection or more likely to give birth preterm.
Today’s treatments are not very effective, so I was excited to talk to Meilin Zhu and her team about a new approach they’re exploring. It uses oleic acids to inhibit the growth of a “gateway” bacteria that can lead to more bad microbes, as well as promote the growth of the good bacteria. This research is still in its early stages, but it’s promising.
A new drug development platform that will make us better prepared for the next pandemic. Although the world made remarkable progress on vaccines when COVID struck, the same can’t be said for therapeutics.
The team at Decoy Therapeutics is working to speed up the process of developing drugs with their promising new biologic platform. The idea is that lipopeptide molecules could be used to inhibit a virus’ fusion machinery and prevent it from infecting cells. If Decoy’s research pans out, scientists could one day use the platform to design therapies for novel viruses within days or even hours.
My time in Senegal reaffirmed my belief in the power of science and innovation. There is no question that our world faces some difficult problems. But when brilliant scientists dedicate their talents to taking on the world’s biggest challenges, progress becomes possible, and we move closer to a future when all people lead healthy lives.