LONDON: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation plans to spend more this year than ever before -- $8.6 billion -- as wider health funding for the lowest income countries stutters after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2024 budget agreed by the foundation’s board is up 4% on last year and $2 billion more than in 2021.

In a statement, the foundation said global health budgets were in decline overall and contributions to health in the lowest-income countries were stalling.

The Gates Foundation is already a key global health funder and has faced criticism over its undue influence, but last year chief executive Mark Suzman said it could not back away until others stepped up, with plans to spend $9 billion annually by 2026.

“We can’t talk about the future of humanity without talking about the future of health,” said Bill Gates, the technology billionaire who founded the foundation in 2000 with his then-wife Melinda, who still works with him on it.

The Gates Foundation has long focused on innovation in healthcare, and the new funding aims in part to open up access to more new technologies for the world’s most vulnerable people.

After a pivot to COVID during the pandemic emergency, 2024 will see a return to the foundation’s long-established priority areas of tackling wider infectious disease threats and the leading causes of child mortality.

Gates said mothers and babies dying simply because of where they live “keeps me up at night”.

He and other Gates executives plan to carry backpacks at the World Economic Forum event in Davos, Switzerland, which starts on Monday, showcasing simple health products that could save millions of lives, from vaccine patches to an artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled ultrasound tool. Gates will also talk about the potential for AI in health more broadly at the event. (Reporting by Jennifer Rigby, Editing by William Maclean)