Demand for oxygen surges as low and middle-income countries scramble for COVID-19 vaccines

Even as low and middle-income countries in Africa such as Ghana are racing to get more vaccines to augment vaccines already secured, the demand for oxygen is becoming another emergency, as demand surges.

A COVID-19 Oxygen Emergency Taskforce, just launched, has determined an immediate funding need of $90 million to address key challenges in oxygen access and delivery in up to 20 countries, including Malawi, Nigeria and Afghanistan.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) in a statement made available to the said it is estimated that more than half a million people in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) currently need 1.1 million cylinders of oxygen per day, with 25 countries currently reporting surges in demand, the majority in Africa.

It explained that the first set of countries in urgent need of oxygen supplies, have been identified based on assessments coordinated by WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, in order to match in-country need with potential financing.

According to the statement, new “assessments show $90 million immediate funding required to meet urgent need in up to 20 LMICs -towards which Unitaid and Wellcome will make an immediate initial contribution of up to $20 million in total.”

It stated that the urgent, short-term requirements of additional countries will be measured and costed in the coming weeks, with the overall funding need over the next 12 months estimated to be $1.6 billion – a figure that will be regularly reviewed by the taskforce.”

Bodies such as the World Bank and the Global Fund are also coming on board to help with financing.

The statement explained that the COVID-19 Oxygen Emergency Taskforce brings together key organisations working on oxygen access under ACT-A Therapeutics pillar, as COVID-19 surges and preventable deaths occur.

“Taskforce partners will work together to measure oxygen demand, work with financing partners, and secure oxygen supplies and technical support for worst-affected countries,” it explained.

Since the start of the pandemic, affordable and sustainable access to oxygen has been a growing challenge in low- and middle-income countries.

The taskforce brings together key organisations that have been working to improve access to oxygen since the start of the pandemic including WHO, UNICEF, the Global Fund, World Bank, CHAI, PATH, the Every Breath Counts coalition and Save the Children.

Oxygen is an essential medicine, and despite being vital for the effective treatment of hospitalised COVID-19 patients, access in LMICs is limited due to cost, infrastructure and logistical barriers.

Recognising the central importance of sustainable oxygen supply – alongside therapeutic products such as dexamethasone – for the treatment of COVID-19, the Access to COVID Tools Accelerator Therapeutics pillar (co-led by Unitaid and Wellcome), is taking a new role to coordinate and advocate for increased supply of oxygen, and, in partnership with a WHO-led consortium.

COVID-19 has put huge pressure on health systems, with hospitals in many LMICs running out of oxygen, resulting in preventable deaths and families of hospitalised patients paying a premium for scarce oxygen supplies.

The Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, is a new global collaboration to accelerate the development, production and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines.

It was set up in response to a call from G20 leaders in March 2020 and launched by WHO, the European Commission, France and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in April 2020.

Unitaid is a global health agency engaged in finding innovative solutions to prevent, diagnose and treat diseases more quickly, cheaply and effectively, in low- and middle-income countries. Its work includes funding initiatives to address major diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, as well as HIV co-infections and co-morbidities such as cervical cancer and hepatitis C, and crosscutting areas, such as fever management.

Unitaid is now applying its expertise to address challenges in advancing new therapies and diagnostics for the COVID-19 pandemic, serving as a key member of the Access to COVID Tools Accelerator. The World Health Organisation is hosting Unitaid.

By Eunice Menka

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