The UNICEF said it will stockpile 520 million syringes in its warehouses, as part of a larger plan of one billion hypodermic needles by 2021, to guarantee initial supply and help ensure that syringes are available in countries before the COVID-19 vaccines arrives.
"As the world awaits a COVID-19 vaccine, UNICEF has begun laying the groundwork for the rapid, safe and efficient delivery of the eventual vaccine by purchasing and pre-positioning syringes and other necessary equipment," the UN agency said on Monday.
The agency said as soon as COVID-19 vaccines successfully emerge from trials and are licensed and recommended for use, the world will need as many syringes as doses of vaccine.
To begin preparations, this year, the UNICEF will stockpile 520 million syringes in its warehouses, part of a larger plan of one billion syringes by 2021, to guarantee initial supply and help ensure that syringes arrive in countries before the COVID-19 vaccines, it said.
During 2021, assuming there are enough doses of COVID-19 vaccines, UNICEF anticipates delivering over one billion syringes to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts on top of the 620 million syringes that it will purchase for other vaccination programmes against other diseases such as measles, typhoid and more.
"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," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said.
"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," Fore said.
In line with the longstanding collaboration between the two partners, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, will reimburse the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) for the procurement of the syringes and safety boxes, which shall then be used for the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX Facility) and for other Gavi-funded immunisation programmes if necessary.
Besides syringes, UNICEF is also buying 5 million safety boxes so that used syringes and needles can be disposed of in a safe manner by personnel at health facilities, thus preventing the risk of needle stick injuries and blood borne diseases. Every safety box carries 100 syringes. Accordingly, UNICEF is "bundling" the syringes with safety boxes to ensure enough safety boxes are available to go along with the syringes.
The UNICEF said injection equipment such as syringes and safety boxes have a shelf life of five years. 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 freight. In addition to saving time, early purchase of syringes and safety boxes also reduces pressure on the market and pre-empts potential early spikes in demand when vaccines do become available.
As the key procurement coordinator for Gavi, the UNICEF is already the largest single vaccine buyer in the world, procuring more than 2 billion doses of vaccines annually for routine immunisation 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 immunisation programmes. COVID-19 vaccines will likely treble or quadruple that number, depending on the number of COVID-19 vaccines that are ultimately produced and secured by the UNICEF.
"Over two decades, Gavi has helped an additional 822 million children from the world's most vulnerable countries access critical, life-saving vaccines," CEO of Gavi Seth Berkley said. "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, the UNICEF, along with WHO, is also mapping out existing cold chain equipment and storage capacity - in the private as well as 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," 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. Since 2017, over 40,000 cold-chain fridges, including solar fridges, have been installed across health facilities, mostly in Africa.