Likes mount up for $3bn Chan-Zuckerberg cure-all ambitions

The worlds of science and philanthropy have welcomed Wednesday night’s announcement by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his paediatrician wife Priscilla Chan that they will donate $3bn to biomedical research over the next 10 years, with a long-term ambition to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century”.

At the same time scientists and philanthropists were keen to put the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative into perspective, alongside estimated global spending on biomedical research of more than $200bn a year. Questions have also been raised about the choice of philanthropic vehicle, a limited company that is more flexible than a traditional charitable foundation but requires less financial transparency.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, the largest UK medical charity, said: “Wellcome aims to spend £5bn over the next five years on our mission of improving health by helping great ideas to thrive, and we welcome the fresh impetus to science and research that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will bring.”

The initiative’s initial $3bn pledge compares with $3.6bn committed so far by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to combat malaria, tuberculosis and Aids; the Gates foundation has a total trust endowment of about $40bn. The US National Institutes of Health invests $32bn a year in biomedical research.

Fran Perrin, a member of the philanthropic Sainsbury family and director of the Indigo Trust, said: “The fact that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has chosen to set up a limited company rather than a traditional foundation gives them lots of flexibility, and I think the motives are good.”

But, she added, “I’d love them to go beyond what’s required on transparency and demonstrate and show what they’re doing. Given the scale of the giving that they’re going to be involved with, people will be fascinated to see it and there will be a lot of cynicism, both healthy and overly sceptical, perhaps. I think they actually have extremely positive motives and it’s a joy to watch them enter this field.”

Jo Ensor, director of the UK-based Philanthropy Workshop, said Mr Zuckerberg was “being incredibly ambitious in his goals but he has the best platform, in Facebook, to achieve them”.
The limited company mechanism was becoming a popular vehicle for Silicon Valley philanthropists, Ms Ensor said. “There may be ​very good reasons, but it is ​also ​less transparent. So to what extent will he publish his achievements on Facebook and to what extent will he talk about what has gone wrong, as well as right? Will he give not just spin but real insight into what he’s achieving?” she asked.

Public health experts were excited by the initiative. “‘Curing all diseases’ is an incredibly ambitious aim — but why not set that goal?” said Trudie Lang, director of Oxford university’s Global Health Network.

“Bill Gates describes himself as an impatient optimist and it takes highly determined people like Gates and Zuckerberg to enable such enterprise as this that could really bring true change in our ability to treat and manage the most devastating diseases.”

Mario Raviglione, director of the Global TB Programme at the World Health Organisation, said: “My hope is simply that diseases of poverty that are currently neglected in terms of investments and engagement by the pharmaceutical and biological companies be part of this new initiative. Research and development, starting from discovery and up to the operational implementation research that makes new tools applicable immediately where they are needed, are fundamental to control and end epidemics.”

Infectious diseases — and the creation of new drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tests for them — are one of the first two scientific projects identified by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The other is a “cell atlas” that will map in detail the many different cell types that control tissues and organs throughout the body, including their internal cellular machinery.
The initiative will make its most immediate impact in California, where it will spend $600m building a Chan Zuckerberg Biohub next to the UC San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus, with a satellite site at Stanford University.

“I hope the initiative will be as successful as the Gates Foundation in stretching its influence way beyond California to bring together the best minds from the best organisations throughout the world,” commented Dr Jim Smith, chief of strategy at the UK Medical Research Council.

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