Six ways UNICEF is innovating to respond to the pandemic and build stronger health systems

This World Innovation Day, here are six ways UNICEF is responding to COVID-19 and building back better in preparation to prevent, detect and respond to future health crises.

UNICEF Product Innovation Centre and UNICEF Office of Innovation
Bira (15) shows the right way to wear a mask . Location : Sanwlor Village, Barmer, Rajasthan, India
20 April 2022

COVID-19 wrought havoc globally. Health systems were overwhelmed, with many patients unable to access the life-saving medical care, oxygen therapy and vaccines they needed.   

In response, UNICEF worked to rapidly find and roll out innovative solutions – not only to respond to the current crisis, but also to strengthen global health systems for the future so we can better prevent, detect and respond to future health crises and infectious disease threats.  

Here are 6 innovative projects that are helping us respond to COVID-19 and build back better to prepare for future emergencies. 


1. Rapidly deployable Health Emergency Facility to respond to future pandemics

Rapidly deployable Health Emergency Facility to respond to future pandemics
World Health Organization

Speed is critical to help prevent major infectious disease outbreaks from spreading further. UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Médecins Sans Frontières are developing an innovative Health Emergency Facility which can be rapidly deployed to provide screening, isolation and essential care during disease outbreaks. This will help prevent future deadly epidemics from spreading further, potentially saving millions of lives.  

Using guidelines and a digital planning tool, UNICEF and partners will be able to identify, configure and customize health facilities from pre-designed layouts for various disease outbreaks like COVID-19, cholera or Ebola. They will be able to generate procurement lists for all components, including the physical structure, medical equipment, medicines and electricity supply.   

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many ad-hoc health facilities took months to plan, install and operationalize. The new facilities will be designed to be procured in a matter of hours and, if supplies are pre-positioned in regional hubs, they could be set up within weeks. 

2. Accessing real-time data to improve vaccine distribution and monitoring

A child receives the oral polio vaccine in Bomi County, Liberia.
A child receives the oral polio vaccine in Bomi County, Liberia.

COVID-19 proved the need for quick, efficient vaccine distribution – which was already a challenge for many countries before the pandemic. Vaccine distribution requires careful coordination, which assumes a clear and precise understanding of where vaccines are needed while simultaneously monitoring rates.  

Real-time Vaccination Monitoring and Analysis (RT-VaMA) is a digital monitoring app that enables daily tracking of vaccine coverage, utilization, and wastage. Through Open Data Kit (ODK) technology, data can be collected on smartphones and basic mobile devices, allowing data to reach decision-makers fast enough to make course corrections and address bottlenecks.  

The UNICEF Venture Fund also launched a new funding mechanism to accelerate its most promising solutions. Bridge Funding was granted to StaTwig, which leverages blockchain technology to improve food and vaccine distribution systems, making them more efficient and transparent with a layer of accountability. This follow-on funding will boost StaTwig’s flagship solution, VaccineLedger, to provide a better service and reach more beneficiaries.  

Bridge Funding was also granted to Weni, which built a platform that uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI) to create chatbots. The company was tapped by UNICEF’s Europe and Central Asia Regional Office and the WHO to develop HealthBuddy, a multilingual interactive chatbot, to help countries access timely, accurate information – and to counter misinformation – about COVID-19. By the end of 2021, the app was available in 20 languages, with 300,000 users, and had debunked over 17,000 pieces of misinformation. 

3. Groundbreaking vaccine technology, without the need for conventional needles and syringes

A young boy in Samoa receives a measles vaccine.
UNICEF/UNI232371/Stephen/Infinity Images
A young boy in Samoa receives a measles vaccine.

UNICEF is also working with partners and industry to research and prototype a new vaccine delivery technology: Vaccine Microarray Patches (VMAPs). These band-aid like devices have small micro needles that deliver vaccines via the skin. 

While this groundbreaking technology will take years to develop and refine, if successful it could transform the way the whole world delivers vaccines.  

Vaccines will no longer require the use of conventional needles and syringes, removing the risks of needle waste. It will mean they could be rapidly administered by minimally trained health care workers, allowing vaccination programmes to expand and more people to receive a vaccine faster. This could be critical in the wake of a disease outbreak or future pandemic.  

Smaller and without the need for cold chain systems, they will also be easier and cheaper to transport to even the most remote areas, helping UNICEF reach the last mile to ensure no child is left behind.   

4. Developing and deploying tools to understand and monitor spread

 In Indonesia’s remote East Nusa Tenggara Province, Vero Hegewati Kolin, 51, walks from her home to the local village hall on Solor Island to receive her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
In Indonesia’s remote East Nusa Tenggara Province, Vero Hegewati Kolin, 51, walks from her home to the local village hall on Solor Island to receive her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

UNICEF’s big data initiative, Magic Box, is a collaborative platform that harnesses real-time data generated by private sector partners such as Telefonica, Google, IBM, Amadeus, and Red Hat. By analyzing real-time data, UNICEF can gain critical insights into the needs of vulnerable populations and make informed decisions to respond better to disasters, epidemics, and other challenges.  

UNICEF produced and analyzed insights for 10 UNICEF countries, providing evidence and deploying tools that allow for timely action with special consideration for the most vulnerable. In Indonesia, for example, data digested through Magic Box helped prevent COVID-19 transmission in and around Jakarta; by gathering data on population mobility and disease transmission into a real-time dashboard, the team had a seven-day early warning of when an area would likely become a COVID-19 hotspot and could then prevent transmission at the earliest possible stage.  

The UNICEF Venture Fund also granted Acceleration Funding to Thinking Machines, a company that harnesses powerful artificial intelligence to mine alternative digital data sources, to further address the lack of credible, coordinated, and timely information across systems. By expanding their work, Thinking Machines can generate valuable insights to address these and many other data-related challenges.  

5. Strengthening global oxygen systems

Six-month-old Nyameba receives life-saving oxygen treatment for pneumonia at a children’s emergency ward in eastern Ghana in October 2021.
Six-month-old Nyameba receives life-saving oxygen treatment for pneumonia at a children’s emergency ward in eastern Ghana in October 2021.

COVID-19 brought into stark reality the need to strengthen oxygen systems. Oxygen is a life-saving medical gas for patients with severe COVID-19, as well as children with pneumonia, premature newborns and mothers with complications in childbirth.   

UNICEF’s innovative Oxygen System Planning Tool was key to help countries plan and build oxygen systems. The tool calculates a health facility’s oxygen need based on disease prevalence and number of beds and can extrapolate this for a whole country. It provides procurement lists for all equipment and estimates the required budget, right down to the ongoing electricity bill. 

The Scaling Pneumonia Response Innovations (SPRINT) Programme was also launched to support governments to expand access to oxygen therapy and antibiotics, including training medical staff and providing clinics with oxygen equipment. The SPRINT Programme’s model also helps governments identify administrative bottlenecks, improve supply chain issues, and create policies to make oxygen more readily available.  

Another innovative oxygen project was the ARIDA (Acute Respiratory Infection Diagnostic Aid) – a hand-held device that aids timely classification and treatment of pneumonia in children and can be used to monitor oxygen therapy, alerting when to increase, decrease, or discontinue the provision of oxygen. This is critically important where oxygen supplies are limited. 

UNICEF also worked to rapidly develop innovative oxygen source solutions, such as the Oxygen Plant-in-a-Box package, which includes everything needed to produce large volumes of medical grade oxygen. Plants can be operational within days of arriving at a health facility and produce enough oxygen to support 50-100 patients at a time. UNICEF is now working to find innovative ways to power these plants through solar energy and also working to make oxygen concentrators more resilient, able to withstand high heat, humidity and power-related issues.  

This will help ensure oxygen therapy is available to those who need it most, no matter where they live.    

6. Empowering innovators on-the-ground to contribute to stronger health systems

Brishty, 16, is looking at something on her mobile phone at their home during the COVID-19 situation.

The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated inequities in access to public health and health care services for children and young people, disproportionately affecting young people’s mental health, wellbeing, and futures. There is an urgent need to accelerate impact in health, including childhood immunizations, to make sure children and young people survive and thrive.  

The growth and availability of technology and online tools should mean we can deliver learning, health, and support opportunities, anywhere, at any time. By empowering innovators on the ground and across contexts and realities, we can spur innovations that contribute to stronger health systems.  

The UNICEF Venture Fund launched a call for applications for startups based in emerging markets that are using machine learning, artificial intelligence, or data science technologies that address health and health care needs, including by automating and personalizing services; providing predictive analysis and optimizing systems; and generating large volumes of new data.  

The new cohort will be announced in Q2 2022 and will work with UNICEF, data science experts, and their respective Country Offices to ensure their innovations are built to achieve the most impact.  

Through the Uplink Youth Mental Health Challenge, UNICEF, in partnership with the World Economic Forum, called for youth-led, bold, evidence-based, ethical, inclusive, and effective innovative solutions that improve the mental health of children and young people. The winners will be announced in May 2022, and then will embark on the exciting journey of scaling-up their solutions. 

For UNICEF, COVID-19 has proven that only when access to the benefits of digital systems is universal, can we respond quickly and prepare for – or stay afloat during – the next crisis. This is why UNICEF always innovates in collaboration – by venturing into and supporting untapped, underrepresented communities, we can all, more agilely, build a healthy future for all.