COVAX: probably the most complex logistical challenge in history
Meet our experts – Mounir Bouazar, COVID-19 vaccine Global Logistics Lead in UNICEF Supply Division, talks about the huge challenge of delivering COVID-19 vaccines to low and lower-middle countries that have signed up to the COVAX initiative.
How long have you been at UNICEF and what does your job in logistics entail?
I’ve been with UNICEF’s Supply Division for the past seven years. My job is to ensure delivery of COVID-19 vaccines and related supplies from suppliers, or from our main hubs in Copenhagen, Dubai, Panama City and Shanghai, to the countries whether by air, sea and road.
I had the privilege of arranging the shipments of vaccines and syringes to Ghana, which was the first country to receive COVID-19 vaccines international shipment through the COVAX initiative. The amount of coordination required to fast track the shipments was a huge challenge, especially if you bear in mind that the vaccines were ready in Mumbai and the syringes were in our hub in Dubai - and we had a window of two to three days to make the delivery happen. In the end, we managed to find a flight from Shanghai to Dubai which was diverted to Mumbai exceptionally for UNICEF to pick up the vaccines. It then stopped over in Dubai to uplift the syringes before loading vaccines and syringes on another flight to Ghana. All this took coordination with the vaccine suppliers, logistics companies, airlines and the country office to make it happen within 72 hours, which was a great achievement. The supplier fast-tracked their timelines, the airlines came up with a solution, and the freight forwarder even donated the flight for free to UNICEF.
What is the biggest challenge you’re facing to accomplish the COVAX Facility’s mission?
We have three main challenges. First, we will be facing an extreme supply availability constraint at least during the first months. Second, the number of countries involved, as there are over 100 countries relying on UNICEF to procure and deliver vaccines, syringes and other related supplies to them. This is made more challenging because of the reduction in airfreight capacity due to COVID, and what adds even more to the challenge is that vaccines require cold chain during transport and storage which means following very strict regulations about how much time they can be transit and the temperature range that at which they must be kept at all times.
The other major challenge is giving countries realistic timelines, managing their expectations and making sure they are kept informed at all times about what’s happening and again, this applies to over 100 countries.
“We see now an increased eagerness from partners that favour working together towards the same objectives. It’s quite amazing to be part of it.”
What makes COVAX unique compared to other major missions or projects you have been involved in with UNICEF?
Even though we have a lot of experience dealing with emergencies arising from political conflicts or natural disasters, even regional emergencies such as Ebola, which involved a number of countries, what’s unique here is the sheer scale of the operation. When I was in charge of UNICEF logistics for the global response to COVID with all the PPE, diagnostics and oxygen concentrators to deliver, we at least had most of the supplies consolidated and controlled through our hub. But now we’re talking about a global supply chain where we have manufacturers in India, in Europe, and most likely from other parts of the world in the coming months. Aligning with suppliers’ supply chains, in addition to the constraints that are related to cold chain, the impact of COVID on the airfreight market, and most importantly the scale of COVAX scope makes it probably the most complex logistical challenge in history.
But, despite all challenges, we are reaching our goals. Last week we reached the three-week mark of UNICEF vaccine deliveries on behalf of the COVAX Facility - 21 days, 41 countries, over 19 million doses!
Looking ahead in 20 years, how would you tell the story of the COVAX Facility to children and young people in the future?
For the first time we are seeing companies and organizations reaching out with their hearts, and offering their help whether in in kind donations, offering commercial support and services, or deploying people to work with us pro bono. For example, when we launched the Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative to secure the transport of vaccines and other supplies worldwide, we immediately received offers from over 20 airlines to be part of it.
What we see now is more of a genuine eagerness from many partners that are willing to work together towards the same objective of making Covid-19 vaccines available to the world. It’s quite amazing and a true privilege to be part of this historical moment.