COVAX: “It is about the collective well-being”
Meet our experts – Robert Matthews, head of the Medical Devices Unit in UNICEF Supply Division, talks about his work to get syringes and safety boxes ready for the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines.
How are you involved in the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccines?
We are now extremely busy working to ensure that syringes and safety boxes for COVID-19 vaccines will be available to low and lower middle-income countries.
Our team manages the global procurement of a broad range of medical equipment, devices and consumables for use in maternal, neonatal and child health programmes. We have over 350 products within our product portfolio that are used in UNICEF and our partners’ programmes and emergency response around the globe.
That includes safe injection equipment, like syringes and safety boxes, which are used in immunization. These will be needed in our global COVAX response – at massive volumes.
What is the biggest challenge you are facing to accomplish the COVAX Facility’s mission?
Our biggest challenge is to make sure that we are ready for the roll-out of COVAX. This means ensuring the required quantities of quality assured, affordable syringes that are auto-disabled - which means that they can only be used once - and safety boxes are delivered ahead of the vaccines.
On a regular basis, we buy syringes and safety boxes on behalf of about 100 countries annually and we are the biggest buyer of auto-disable syringes in the global market. That normally brings us to between about 600-800 million syringes on an annual basis.
Now, the challenge is that we are looking to buy an additional 1 billion syringes for the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 and then potentially scaling up this amount to about 3.5 billion in 2022. So, it's a tremendous scale up.
What makes it even more challenging is that the lead times we need to ship syringes and safety boxes are much longer than for vaccines that are transported by plane. Syringes and safety boxes are bulky and do normally need to be shipped by sea.
“It is tremendous to see this understanding that there needs to be an equitable approach.”
What makes COVAX unique compared to other major missions or projects you have been involved in with UNICEF?
We have procured many syringes before, but what makes COVAX unique is the sheer scope, scale, and speed in which it is moving. We have already bought more than half a billion syringes and are working to secure the required supplies for 2021. We are doing this across a very wide collaboration of partnerships where multiple workstreams are working in parallel to develop the response.
This is also new because it is a global initiative. It is bringing in a number of different partners together, working collectively on developing a global strategy. Different elements including the vaccines, devices, regulatory requirements, country readiness, financing, need to be put in place at a scale and speed that we've never experienced before.
This requires a great deal of collaboration across all the different partners and an understanding of the scope and scale, not just of the supply chain itself, but all of these other elements that are needed to make this initiative succeed.
In 20 years, how would you like to hear people tell the story of the COVAX Facility to children and young people?
First of all, I'd like to say, yes, we did it. I would also like to hear people reflecting on how this tremendous global initiative came together and how countries collaborated to a scale that has never been seen before. How so many countries and partners came together to collectively fight this global pandemic and collaborate to implement an equitable solution. I would want us to remember the positive impact the COVID-19 vaccine had globally for all the vulnerable populations in the world, and how fast it was able to happen in comparison to regular vaccine development which can take many years.
This is a global pandemic and the only way we are going to really succeed is if we work collectively. Underneath the COVAX initiative, we have the collaboration of a number of countries and it is tremendous to see this understanding that there needs to be an equitable approach. We need this vaccine for everyone and so seeing that come together and working to get that achieved is great, and that's something that all of us engaged should be tremendously proud of.
We are focusing on the collective well-being. That's what it's about. You cannot be selfish here. The collaboration around the COVAX initiative and this willingness globally is a clear indication of this. This is the first time in, I don't know how long, but a very long time, where there's been such a united collaboration around eradicating a disease and supporting the world's population.