Building more resilient procurement practices amid a pandemic

UNICEF launched the first-ever joint Forum for vaccine and medicine procurement practitioners, convening 109 participants from 18 countries.

A baby is about to receive a drop of the polio vaccine in a health center in Kinshasa, the capital of The Republic of Congo.
16 December 2021

Hosted annually by UNICEF Supply Division, exchange forums offer a unique venue for peer-to-peer cooperation among procurement practitioners. These annual forums are ripe with opportunities for knowledge exchange among countries, helping them to improve their procurement processes and ensure timely and sustainable access to affordable supplies.

Typically, forums for vaccine and medicine procurement practitioners are held separately. With both health commodities being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year UNICEF launched the first joint edition of the Forum geared towards both vaccine and medicine procurement practitioners. This format offered participants a unique cross-pollination opportunity, allowing them to come together to discuss health system strengthening and equitable supply access across the different commodities they procure. Titled eV-MPPEF, this year’s joint edition was held virtually on 6 and 7 December 2021, with 109 vaccine and medicine procurement practitioners representing 18 countries of the 21 registered.

“Although contexts differ, all countries are facing similar COVID-19-related supply challenges. Hence the importance of this year’s joint forum in bringing together national delegations for a high-level, cross-country knowledge exchange,” said Mr Abdelkrim Tanouti, delegate of the Government of Morocco. “The eV-MPPEF has provided us with the necessary knowledge and tools to improve our monitoring of COVID-19 vaccine markets, to better understand supply mechanisms established by UNICEF and to learn from the experiences of other countries in addressing challenges caused by the pandemic".  

Key findings

The eV-MPPEF saw participants share their country-specific experiences on the procurement of vaccines and medicine amid the ongoing pandemic. The event generated empowering thematic conversations around the COVID-19 response, from the potential impact on routine immunization campaigns like the rotavirus to the decline in the vaccination coverage due to lockdowns, travel restrictions and hesitancy concerns. It also helped to identify specific needs for the participating countries.

In particular, the participants exchanged their insights and experiences on decisions and measures taken to prevent essential health service disruptions during the pandemic and to support access to COVID-19 medical supplies. Among others, strategic adjustments to support service delivery include appropriate forecasting and planning for vaccines and medicine as well as policy and legislation adaptations (e.g., emergency procurement and simplified procedures for medical products, such as the adoption of the Emergency Use Listing (EUL) procedure). Participants acknowledged the importance of the close collaboration between supply units and health programming for emergency preparedness, within a broader optimal coordination involving all COVID-19 response stakeholders.

The Forum helped identify ’gold standards’ in ensuring sustainable and timely access to affordable, quality-assured supplies as well as share relevant resources and tools to increase knowledge exchange among countries. Some of these standards include the timely review of safety stock for key health supplies and the establishment of measures on distribution, such as the introduction of irreducible stocks to ensure sufficient reserves of supplies.

Participants acknowledged the importance of the technical assistance provided by UNICEF – for example, the management of COVID-19 vaccines with short shelf-life and the coordination of shipment schedules.

Country engagement

Country-specific contributions zoomed in on supply chain challenges due to the pandemic. For instance, shipment of vaccines and essential medicine has been severely disrupted, with some countries receiving a single cargo flight every two weeks, requiring them to seek charter flights to speed up their vaccination campaigns. Other examples presented at the Forum ranged from vaccine rollout complexities for large countries and populations to the equally challenging public procurement for small countries that are unattractive for distributors in the midst of a pandemic.

The Forum stressed the need for countries to prioritize essential supply items, identify at-risk communities and ensure quality-assurance for supplies and services when mobilizing domestic resources and donor funding for immunization purposes.

The participants exchanged their views on how a radically cooperative, proactive, coordinated and timely approach can enable a rapid detection and response to novel risks and ensures appropriate service delivery during emergencies. To this end, a dedicated discussion took place on the measures to protect health workers, including those in supply chain and operations, from epidemiological risks and excessive workloads. Participating countries agreed on concrete solutions to overcome emerging challenges.

Some of these solutions include devising adequate and agile communications plans – for example, carried in both the official and local languages, including inputs from civil society and explicitly guaranteeing the dissemination of the World Health Organization (WHO) safety protocols across communities and rural areas for health workers. Other identified solutions include the systematic monitoring of stocks, emphasizing an evidence-based approach to budgeting based on forecasting needs and policy adaptation in favor of disaster-preparation – for example, the introduction of mechanisms to leverage the United Nations and international support when this is not covered in the national legislation.  

Countries shared successful approaches that could be replicated. For instance, in Kazakhstan there are five regulatory-approved COVID-19 vaccines, including a domestic one, available free-of-charge for citizens. The country has therefore built the momentum for a local vaccine manufacturing agenda that can be replicated in neighbouring countries. The Republic of Moldova has significantly improved its medicine procurement and supply management process (e.g., open tender timeline reduced from three months to only one).

Beyond the event: Continuous support from UNICEF

During the eV-MPPEF, participants surveyed a series of tools and best practices to strengthen data availability, maintain adequate pharmaceutical and vaccine stock levels, minimize wastage and guide redistribution of supplies.

One of these tools is the upcoming UNICEF e-course on strategic vaccine procurement that will be available online in the second quarter of 2022. This e-course will focus on providing procurement practitioners with ways to strengthen their strategic procurement approaches to ensure timely access to affordable vaccines. Another online tool, the Stock Management Tool (SMT), is available for free with training provided by UNICEF and WHO. It serves to monitor the performance of supply chains and collects data to gauge the confidence of the procurement specialists. Data collection available through the SMT includes temperature tracking of cold chain equipment.

First-time participants requested to join the organization’s Vaccine Procurement Practitioners Network, to put in practice the lessons learned during the eV-MPPEF with the continuous technical support of UNICEF.