How The Billionaire Behind The Movie ‘Contagion’ Is Working To Stop This Pandemic—And The Next One
Jeff Skoll has been funding pandemic preparedness for more than a decade, even longer than Bill Gates. In recent months, he’s increased his philanthropic giving to help combat Covid-19
Skoll, 55, became a billionaire just over two decades ago as a result of stock he received as eBay’s first president. He left eBay in 2001 and has since co-produced more than 100 films and TV programs, all with socially relevant themes including the climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth featuring Al Gore, factory farming documentary Food Inc., the miniseries When They See Us and the 2016 Academy Award best picture winner Spotlight, about The Boston Globe’s investigations into child sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
While his impassioned film-making pretty much ground to a halt temporarily with California’s shelter-in-place orders, his 2011 movie Contagion has become the must watch-at-home hit of the pandemic—it’s the number one selling title to date this year, according to Warner Brothers, the distributor. (It won’t disclose the number of times it’s been rented or sold.) In late March, Participant, Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh worked with Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and other cast members to produce public service announcements about washing your hands and staying home.
Beyond backing a movie about a pandemic, Skoll has been funding pandemic preparedness and prevention since 2009 — six years before Bill Gates’ now well known TED talk warning about them -- through the Skoll Global Threats Fund, to which he pledged $100 million. (The other threats: climate change, water scarcity, nuclear weapons and conflict in the Middle East.)
Since the start of this year, Skoll has contributed an additional $200 million to his charitable foundation—$100 million of which was announced in late April and will go toward fighting Covid-19. He put the other $100 million in earlier this year, he tells Forbes, adding that he hadn’t bothered to publicize it. “I don’t see this as a money squirt,” Skoll explains. “This is a resource allocation to an area we know well. And this is an emergency.”
Newly bulked up, the Skoll Foundation promised to quadruple its grantmaking this year to $200 million. New beneficiaries in 2020 include some of the poorest folks in Los Angeles and the contact tracing program being launched across California.“This is the rainy day we’ve all been saving for,” Skoll says of his charitable giving. “If not now, when?”
He’s been working up to 20 hours a day in his kitchen in Beverly Hills — on a call in early June, he jokes that it’s his “command center,” equipped with a couple of iPads, a MacBook and some bluetooth devices — talking to people around the globe, taking the pulse of the pandemic and searching out individuals, organizations and companies with new ideas. “Just the science, the learnings of the virus — almost every day there’s some revelation that we didn’t know,” says Skoll.
The pandemics research that Skoll started funding through the Skoll Global Threats Fund spun off into a nonprofit called Ending Pandemics in January 2018, with a seed grant from Skoll. “It’s all about early detection and rapid response,” says Ending Pandemics President Dr. Mark Smolinski.
Skoll has been funding pandemic preparedness and prevention since 2009 — six years before Bill Gates’ TED talk warning about them— through the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which he spun off into Ending Pandemics in 2018.
Skoll got wind of the novel coronavirus early on, back in December —where it started. “We had colleagues on the ground in Wuhan. We had an idea that a zoonotic disease had jumped to humans,” he says. By January he and his team began to be concerned about countries with trade ties to China — particularly in Africa, where some of the social entrepreneurs that the Skoll Foundation has supported are operating.
In early February, the Skoll Foundation made its first Covid-19 related grant: $3 million to the African Field Epidemiology Network, a group working with the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (the Africa CDC) to help coordinate African countries’ response and to boost surveillance and detection. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated to the same group around the same time. Beginning with those two grants, says Africa CDC Director Dr. John Nkengasong, “we were able to rally rapid responders to Addis Ababa [for training] and send them to Nigeria and Cameroon. We were able to scale up diagnostics.” Funding from others then followed, including the MasterCard foundation, Germany, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S.
In March it made a grant to the Southern African Center for Infectious Disease Surveillance Foundation (SACIDS) and a similar group in East Africa. One outcome: Mozambique, which had the infrastructure to test for Covid-19 but limited money to buy tests, got the needed funds and ramped up testing four-fold, according to Smolinski.
The Skoll foundation’s next move was to quickly create a fund for both its current and past grantees — mostly social entrepreneurs. Sixty-four organizations were given $50,000 grants. “We figured they would need emergency funding,” Skoll explains.
Though the Skoll Foundation has traditionally supported social entrepreneurs who work in lower income countries, in the past few months it has made some donations closer to home. Because Los Angeles County has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, Skoll reached out to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to offer assistance. In late April, his foundation made a $2 million gift to the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, which is providing cash assistance to families hit hardest by Covid-19.
Skoll also connected with California Governor Gavin Newsom and his senior advisor on social innovation, Kathleen Kelly Janus. The Skoll Foundation is donating $8 million to support California’s response to Covid-19, starting with $4.1 million for the public awareness campaign around contact tracing, which Janus says “will be really critical to preventing a second wave of Covid-19.”
Smolinski’s team, which had already partnered with Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital to build a crowdsourced symptom reporting tracker called Flu Near You in 2012 to show flu trends in neighborhoods and cities, rolled out Covid Near You in early March. The app lets people anonymously report if they’re feeling healthy or not, with zip code info, as a way to track current and potential hotspots.
Skoll’s Ending Pandemics has partnered with governments and public health authorities in 36 countries — 11 of which have surveillance systems tracking Covid-19 and other infectious diseases.
Ending Pandemics has partnered with governments and public health authorities in 36 countries — 11 of which have surveillance systems that Smolinski says are “up to speed.” One is Cambodia, a country of 14 million people, where all four telecom companies support a free mobile app that both receives info about disease and provides information. Calls have gone from 600 a day before the pandemic to 15,000, and the vast majority of the Covid-19 cases in the country were first identified through the hotline, Smolinski says. Cambodia, the country that took in a cruise ship no one else wanted, so far has just 129 cases and no deaths, he adds.
Through the Audacious Project, a philanthropic group with about 30 members launched by TED conference curator Chris Anderson with Jeff Skoll and Richard Branson, Skoll and others are supporting Boston-based Partners in Health, which responded to the Ebola crisis in 2014. The multi-million dollar grant from the Audacious Project enables Partners in Health to share its contact tracing expertise over the coming year with roughly 19 public health departments across the U.S. “We started by helping the state of Massachusetts put together a contact tracing system, and everyone else wanted to know what we were doing,” says Joia Mukherjee, Chief Medical Officer of Partners In Health. “This funding has allowed us to expand our team. What we are hoping is that state and federal money will be forthcoming.”
Mukherjee applauds Skoll’s approach to philanthropy. “Jeff has always been a systems thinker, and that has been transformative for Partners In Health,” she says.
Skoll also contributed funding to an ambitious global project called the Global Infectious Disease Epidemiology Network — GIDEoN for short —being spearheaded by Columbia University epidemiologist Ian Lipkin, who directs the university’s Center for Infection and Immunity. Lipkin has lined up the equivalent of the National Institutes of Health in 12 countries including India, Brazil and China and together they’ll share information about outbreaks and disease samples. With GIDEoN, Lipkin explains, “we’re trying to upgrade the capacity for detecting infectious agents and toxins, particularly in the developing world.”
While Skoll has been involved in global philanthropy for nearly two decades, he now has an even more personal reason for being involved in the fight against deadly diseases. While working on Ebola in 2014, he contracted a rare tropical disease that took two years to diagnose. He took an 18 month medical leave of absence and is feeling better now.
Despite many challenges, Skoll is an optimist, even about pandemics. Yes, the number of cases will likely increase as U.S. states open back up, he says. But he’s hopeful that a treatment for Covid-19-an existing drug—can work and be scaled up for distribution sometime this summer. “I hope we can get the solutions in place in the next few months. I see a path to it,” he says.
As for future pandemics, Skoll sees a silver lining. “There are so many zoonotic viruses that jump over from animals to humans. Most of them peter out and turn into something less lethal. I don’t think it’s likely that we’ll see any terrible new pandemic any time soon, says Skoll. “If anything, the world is on watch now.”
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