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Supply Chain Integrity, Global Health, and COVID-19

February 11, 2021

Combatting COVID-19 requires a unified global response. New strains of the virus continue to threaten the effectiveness of current treatments and vaccines. The social and economic repercussions of COVID-19 have reverberated throughout our collective societies, but the continued strain on the global health supply chain (GHSC) is perhaps the greatest challenge that we currently face.

“[A]s long as COVID-19 runs rampant anywhere, it is a threat to everyone everywhere.”

Tedros Adhanom, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO)

Distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, ventilators, oxygenators, and mass amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers is pushing the limits of the GHSC, especially in low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs). These countries face innumerable logistical impediments as medical equipment, medication, vaccines, and other supplies are transported through a variety of governmental systems, markets, and ecological environments.

Key Challenges

One of the primary challenges LMICs face, especially those in warmer climates, is the need for ultra-cold refrigeration during all segments of the supply chain. In the medical community, this supply of special freezers along a temperature controlled supply chain is commonly referred to as the “cold-chain,” and it is a requirement that can often only be met by wealthy countries. For example, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), says the West-African nation of Burkina Faso does not currently have the ability to safely store the COVID-19 vaccine.

“If we had to vaccinate against the coronavirus now, at this moment, it would be impossible.”
Jean-Claude Mubalama, UNICEF Head of Health and Nutrition for Burkina Faso

The COVID-19 vaccine will ultimately provide immunity for a significant portion of the population. But until the vaccine is administered more broadly, medical professionals must focus on keeping people alive. For the most severe cases, practitioners need ventilators, oxygen, and oxygenators so patients can safely transition from machine-assisted breathing to once again breathing on their own. The supply of medical oxygen is critically low in many parts of the world.

Los Angeles, London, Belfast, and other large developed cities are reporting unprecedented oxygen shortages. In Egypt, a hospital ward critically low on oxygen was captured on video. Brazilian hospitals are rationing oxygen and in Mexico, there have been reports of armed assailants stealing oxygen by force. In many areas, the oxygen shortage is due to the number of positive cases in recent weeks, but there are also other obstacles such as: freezing pipes, lack of oxygen canisters, and a scarcity of delivery drivers. In the developing world, these complications are more prevalent.

‘We have to work together’

While the issues described here will likely persist or get worse before they improve, there are several avenues for alleviation. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) recently announced its Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative to transport COVID-19 vaccines, supplies, and medical equipment around the world. Etihad Cargo, Air France KLM Martinair Cargo, and IAG Cargo have all agreed to support UNICEF in this effort. The COVAX Initiative is currently on pace to provide more than 2 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2021. Pakistan, the latest COVAX recipient, is set to receive 2.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on March 2.

At the request of President Joe Biden, the United States will also support the COVAX Initiative by providing an immediate $2 billion donation to the program, with an additional $2 billion to follow in the next two years. Initial estimations indicate that $15 billion will be needed to fuel the global vaccination drive. With US-led coalitions and international support, this number can be reached.

“Yet, even as we fight to get out of the teeth of this pandemic, the resurgence of Ebola in Africa is a stark reminder that we must simultaneously work to finally finance health security; strengthen global health systems; and create early warning systems to prevent, detect, and respond to future biological threats, because they will keep coming. We have to work together to strengthen and reform the World Health Organization.”

President Biden, 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference, February 19, 2021

Initiatives such as these are proof that through multi-sector initiatives and creative partnerships, the GHSC can function properly and ensure the delivery of medical necessities is not inhibited by geography or socio-economic status.

In cooperation with our clients, Washington Business Dynamics is committed to the continuance of positive change in this arena. We strive to partner with those who envision a global health supply chain that is dynamic, efficient, equitable, and accessible for all.


Author: Jackson Stuteville, Associate at WBD, is a Policy and Governance professional engaged with the firm’s IT Management Support award with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

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