World Aids Day: 'Nobody is satisfied with the state of healthcare', says Tim Cook

Exclusive: Tim Cook on his company’s biggest-ever World Aids Day event and why saving lives is not political

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The Independent Tech

When the boss of one of the biggest companies in the world talks about one of the biggest scourges facing humanity, you should listen.

World Aids Day on 1 December this year, coincides with the 10th anniversary of (Red), the charity set up by Bono and Bobby Shriver with the aim of ridding the world of Aids. Its immediate mission is to create an Aids-free generation by 2020.

Apple is the world’s largest corporate contributor to the Global Fund, the world’s war chest to fight Aids, tuberculosis and malaria, with (Red) money being used solely for the Aids fight. Over the decade, Apple has raised almost a third of (Red)’s money, around $120m (£96.3m).

On Tuesday, I sat down in the Apple CEO’s conference room at 1 Infinite Loop to talk apps, healthcare and awareness with Deborah Dugan, CEO of (Red), Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook and Greg Joswiak, Vice-President, Worldwide Product Marketing.

Tim Cook, in an immaculate dark blue shirt and grey jeans, is relaxed but serious as he talks about Apple’s upcoming World Aids Day activity.

“We are bringing an unparalleled level of awareness to Aids and our fight against it. We have an unprecedented number of touch points where customers can participate in this fight. We’re proud that over the last 10 years we’ve positively impacted 70 million lives, and there are over 18 million people today on anti-retroviral (ARV) medications as a result of our efforts.

“Ten years ago there were 1,200 babies being born a day with HIV, and that’s now dropped to 400. So there’s been a lot of progress but we still have work to do to get to an Aids-free generation by 2020, though we are on target, it’s within our sights.”

Deborah Dugan points out that this is a UN goal. “We’ve made great strides but 400 is still not acceptable when it’s preventable. Apple was there from the beginning, actually The Independent was as well – the (Red) offices still have the poster of The Independent front cover. We’ve always worked on the premise that if the most creative and innovative people in the world, like the guys at Apple, could work for the world’s poorest, we could change things for the better. We’re obsessed with the return on Apple’s investment, making sure it has maximum impact. We have a 100 per cent model, where the money goes straight to the Global Fund and then every cent is put to use on the ground. Apple’s been quite quiet about the work it’s done so I want to go to the mountain tops and shout, ‘Holy shit, this is $120m’, from one corporation, and that’s more than many countries.”

The products Apple has delivered over 10 years began with an iPod nano. As Greg Joswiak recounts, there have been many since. “As well as other iPod models, iPad cases and Watch bands for (Red), which are available all year round, we have the Play Red promotion which runs from 1-6 December. There are now 20 iPhone and iPad games with elements, characters or levels specifically designed for (Red) where 100 per cent of these in-app purchases go to the Global Fund.” Games include Angry Birds 2, FIFA Mobile and the racing game CSR2 which boasts a gleaming red Bugatti which players can race. In puzzle game Best Fiends, a new, cute caterpillar character called Bam is available to purchase between December 1 and 6 (but you get to keep the adorable fella after that, obviously).

There are four more hardware products launching for this year’s event, with a case for the iPhone SE, and a Smart Battery case for the iPhone 7 that looks positively sultry. There’s also the Beats Pill + Bluetooth speaker and Beats Solo 3 Wireless headphones. The headphones are so iridescent they almost look like they’ve been animated. There are 23 (Red) products now.

For the first time this year, Apple Pay is involved. Buy something – anything – from an Apple Store or apple.com during the promotion period of December 1-6 using Apple Pay and Apple will donate $1 per transaction, up to a maximum of $1m, which is a total likely to be quickly reached, I’d say. Over 400 Apple Stores will look different, too, with red Apple logos or decals in windows and (Red) info on iPad and MacBook screens instore to remind customers that World Aids Day is here.

Apple’s charitable contributions go beyond (Red) and continue through the year. As Tim Cook explains, “The way we do charitable giving is instead of having a corporate committee, we treat all our employees as decision-makers. Wherever they give their money, we match it. That’s one way we hit tonnes of different charities. In terms of corporate initiatives, we touch more people through our products than anything else, and this is as it should be. Our biggest gift to the world will always be to empower people to do things they couldn’t do otherwise. But we also wanted to give the gift of life and how better to do that than to work with (Red) in bringing ARV medication, which is literally 30 cents a day, to save a life? With (Red) we can use our products, our developer community, our stores to make something much larger than writing a cheque. All of this is about leaving the world better than we found it.”

But does he feel that really this is something governments should be doing?

“The tough problems and issues in the world like eradicating Aids will only be dealt with by public and private partnerships. It needs the efforts of governments and corporations – corporations are nothing more than a collection of individuals – but I don’t think governments can do it alone. I think it requires people working as a team. We’re a microcosm of that in Apple, we do our best work when we’re all oaring in the same direction.”

I wonder if living in the current unpredictable political times makes this work more crucial?

“No, I felt it was crucial a year ago, as well, and it will be next year. As I look at these things, from the gift of life to advocating human rights, I don’t view any of them in the political sense at all. These things are about humanity, not whether someone has a right or left or centrist view, I don’t see it in that way. I think it’s hard to argue that saving someone’s life with medication is a political thing.”

Thankfully, Aids is no longer the death sentence it once was, but I ask Deborah Dugan if that makes (Red)’s job of engaging people harder?

“It does,” she admits. “We have to keep applying heat to show it’s relevant. 75 million people have had HIV, 35 million have died from it and 37 million people are living with HIV. We’ve got medication to 18.2 million, but there are many more that need it. There’s much that has to be done about prevention and there are places where it’s coming back because people are getting complacent. We feel more than ever that we need to let people know it’s the number one killer of women of reproductive age, the number two killer of teens worldwide still, and yet we’ve done so much. Although you don’t see the problem of mother-child transmission in the US or Europe, in sub-Saharan Africa and India for instance it’s still rampant. It’s a global issue. When you bring it to people’s attention and say it’s just 30 cents a day and it keeps someone alive, people just tend to say, ‘Of course’, but getting that message out is still hard.”

And there are still social stigmata that cause problems. Shame among those with HIV is still evident. “I was just in Africa,” Ms Dugan says. “When you go to a clinic and you’re tested, everyone is given a white box so if your box contains ARV medicines it won’t be shown, as opposed to somebody else’s box which contains just vitamins. There is so much of an attitude shift that needs to happen but, I don’t know why but I’m crazy optimistic that there’s a generation of youth that is coming up that will have a different sensibility. There is a generation that wants change and so we are on fire to get the right information to them. It’s not about charity, it’s about justice and basic human rights.”

If Apple’s approach sounds utopian, it’s not. Apple approaches healthcare through methods like ResearchKit, an open source framework that allows researchers and developers to create apps for medical research. So how important is healthcare to Apple?

“It’s extremely important,” says Mr Cook. “We started with the Apple Watch and wellness. We’ve just launched the Apple Watch Series 2 and you’ll see we’ll continue to invest in that, there’ll be some really cool things coming there in the future. That led us strangely enough to ResearchKit, just because we were curious and found that medical research was done in an archaic way. When you think of the importance of that research but also the way the research was being used, these two things were diametrically opposed. So we thought we could make a contribution there and there’s now a ton of different research being done with ResearchKit.”

It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider whether companies other than Apple would have invested in something that led to ResearchKit just because of curiosity.

Mr Cook goes on: “ResearchKit led us to CareKit [software for medical care apps] and that will lead us somewhere else. Healthcare is likely the biggest market in the world and I see it as a very key part of our future for us and our developers and the broader Apple community. Whichever way you look at healthcare in general, it’s developed in such a way that nobody would have created it like this. I don’t think anyone is pleased with healthcare, well, maybe people are in the UK, but I don’t meet people who are pleased with what’s going on, though there are many talented people involved in it. It’s somewhere I think we could make a very serious contribution.”

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