COVID-19 vaccine: UNICEF to stockpile more than half a billion syringes by year’s end

With countries and pharmaceutical companies around the world gearing up to distribute COVID-19 vaccines following trials, the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF has begun laying the groundwork for the rapid, safe and efficient delivery by buying and pre-positioning syringes and other necessary equipment.

As soon as vaccines are licensed for use, the world will need as many syringes as doses of vaccine, said UNICEF on Monday. 

To begin preparations, this year, UNICEF will stockpile 520 million syringes in its warehouses, part of a larger plan to have a billion syringes ready for use through 2021, to guarantee initial supply and help ensure that syringes arrive before vaccines are distributed.

During 2021, assuming there are enough doses of COVID-19 vaccines, UNICEF expects to deliver around a billion syringes to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts on top of the 620 million syringes the agency will purchase for other vaccination programmes, against other diseases such as measles, typhoid, and more.

Historic undertaking
“Vaccinating the world against COVID-19 will be one of the largest mass undertakings in human history, and we will need to move as quickly as the vaccines can be produced,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.

“In order to move fast later, we must move fast now. By the end of the year, we will already have over half a billion syringes pre-positioned where they can be deployed quickly and cost effectively. That’s enough syringes to wrap around the world one and a half times.” 

In line with the longstanding collaboration between the two partners, the global vaccine alliance Gavi, will reimburse UNICEF for the cost of syringes and safety boxes, which will then be used for the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX Facility) and for other Gavi-funded immunization programmes, if needed

‘Safety boxes’ for disposal
Besides syringes, UNICEF is also buying 5 million safety boxes so that used syringes and needles can be disposed in a safe manner by personnel at health facilities, reducing the risk of needle stick injuries and blood borne diseases.

Every safety box carries 100 syringes. Accordingly, UNICEF said it was “bundling” the syringes with safety boxes to ensure enough safety boxes are available to go along with the syringes.

Injection equipment such as syringes and safety boxes have a shelf life of five years, the agency notes. Lead-times for such equipment are also long as these items are bulky and need to be transported by sea freight. Vaccines, which are heat sensitive, are normally transported more quickly by air.

As the key procurement coordinator for Gavi, UNICEF is already the largest single vaccine buyer in the world, procuring more than 2 billion doses of vaccines annually for routine immunization and outbreak response on behalf of nearly 100 countries. Every year,

UNICEF provides vaccines for almost half of the world’s children and procures and supplies around 600-800 million syringes for regular immunization programmes.

Huge increase
COVID-19 vaccines will likely treble or quadruple that number, depending on the number that are ultimately produced and secured by UNICEF.

“Over two decades, Gavi has helped an additional 822 million children from the world’s most vulnerable countries access critical, life-saving vaccines”, said Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi. “This would not have been possible without our partnership with UNICEF, and it is this same collaboration that will be essential to Gavi’s work with the COVAX Facility.”

To make sure that vaccines are transported and stored at the right temperature, UNICEF, along with the World Health Organization (WHO), is also mapping out existing cold chain equipment and storage capacity – in the private as well as the public sector – and preparing necessary guidance for countries to receive vaccines.

“We are doing everything we can to deliver these essential supplies efficiently, effectively and at the right temperature, as we already do so well all over the world,” Ms. Fore said.

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with support from Gavi and in partnership with WHO, UNICEF has been upgrading the existing cold chain equipment across health facilities in countries to ensure that vaccines remain safe and effective throughout their journey.

Fridges boost health services
Since 2017, over 40,000 cold-chain fridges, including solar fridges, have been installed across health facilities, mostly in Africa, said the agency.

And in many countries, UNICEF is promoting solar technologies to help countries maintain supply chains.

In South Sudan, the least electrified country in the world, where temperatures frequently exceed 40 degrees Celsius, more than 700 health facilities have been equipped by UNICEF with solar power fridges - around 50 per cent of all facilities nationwide.

WHO, IOM and UNICEF promise investigation of sexual abuse allegations against workers in DR Congo

The health agency issued the strongly-worded statement in response to allegations made during a months-long investigation by journalists from The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation news organizations, which charges that men who identified themselves as being with WHO, had been accused of sexual abuse by some 30 women.

A total of 51 women, alleged that they had been sexually exploited or abused overall by mostly foreign men, identifying themselves as aid workers in Beni, the main city at the centre of what was the country’s worst ever Ebola outbreak, between 2018 and June this year.

Ebola battle

There have been 11 outbreaks of Ebola across DRC overall, including one currently underway in western Equateur Province. The large outbreak in the east, which is the focus of the abuse allegations, was officially declared over on 25 June after nearly two years, killing around 2,280.

Other organizations reportedly named by the accusers, include the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN migration agency (IOM), Medecins Sans Frontiers, Oxfam, World Vision, the medical charity ALIMA, and Congo’s health ministry.

In the statement, WHO leadership and staff, said they were “outraged” by the reports: “The actions allegedly perpetrated by individuals identifying themselves as working for WHO are unacceptable and will be robustly investigated.”

Betrayal of the community

“The betrayal of people in the communities we serve is reprehensible”, the statement continued. “We do not tolerate such behaviour in any of our staff, contractors or partners. Anyone identified as being involved will be held to account and face serious consequences, including immediate dismissal.”

The UN health agency said that Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has initiated a “thorough review of the specific allegations, as well as broader protection issues in health emergency response settings”, emphasizing that as with the UN system as a whole, the WHO has a zero tolerance policy with regards to sexual exploitation and abuse.

IOM will support needs of victims

In a news release issued on Wednesday, the IOM Director General, also ordered an immediate investigation into a "serious allegation" of sexual abuse and exploitation against on of their team.

"Such abuses by UN personnel and other humanitarian workers are an outrageous breach of trust with those we are mandated to support, often in very trying humanitarian circumstances", said the statement.

Because victims are sometimes reluctant to come forward, "we are committed to improving our reporting mechanisms to ensure confidence in the system and that victims are fully aware that they can report such allegations without fear of retribution", the agency added.

"IOM is fully committed to supporting the immediate and longer-term needs of victims, including their access to legal, health and psychosocial support."

UNICEF: 'Thorough assessment'

The UN Children's Fund said on Wednesday it was "appalled that people who identify as UNICEF workers, have reportedly committed abuse against vulnerable women" in the DRC.

They agency said its team on the ground was conducting a "thorough assessment of the facts and will be joined by additional colleagues to seek further detailed information about what has happened."

UNICEF encouraged all victims to come forward, asking anyone with knowledge of any UNICEF involvement in sexual abuse or exploitation, to report it.

“Over the past two years, we have strengthened our efforts to prevent, and respond to, sexual exploitation and abuse by putting victims first. Our top priorities are to provide victims with assistance, ensure swift and victim-centered investigations; vet and train personnel and partners; and establish safe and accessible reporting channels."

However, 'it is clear that this is not enough", the agency statement said. "We need to do more, especially at the community level. We are committed to working closely with communities across DRC to end such abuses and to establish a safe environment for victims to come forward.”