WHO ramps up COVID-19 emergency supply chain

The United Nations has established a supply chain task force to coordinate and scale up the procurement and distribution of medical equipment to countries that need it most to combat the novel coronavirus. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Food Program (WFP) are leading the massive initiative to ship lifesaving medical supplies to about 100 countries, building on existing collaboration with public and private sector partners, such as the International Chamber of Commerce.

“The emergency supply chain is designed to cover more than 30% of the world’s needs in the acute phase of the pandemic,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing on Thursday.

The system will consist of air hubs in Belgium, China, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malaysia, Panama, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

The WHO is working with the private sector to increase production, address cross-border trade problems and ensure equitable distribution.

“Every month we will need to ship at least 100 million medical masks and gloves, up to 25 million N-95 respirators, gowns and face shields, up to 2.5 million diagnostic tests, and large quantities of oxygen concentrators and other equipment for clinical care,” Ghebreyesus said last week.

The WFP will deploy eight Boeing 747 freighters, eight medium-size cargo aircraft and several smaller passenger planes to move humanitarian workers, technical staff, trainers and other personnel, he said. 

“We have produced a global catalog for that equipment and are endeavoring to work with our partner agencies and donors to do bulk purchasing of that material in order to distribute that in a more equitable way around the world, but that doesn’t fix the market problem,” said Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program. “That could allow us to ensure that all countries get a minimum supply of essential goods or essential supplies, but it in no way can fix what is a global failure in markets.”

The WHO’s Belgium hub will be at Liege Airport in an unoccupied warehouse that is due to open in June, according to the airport authority. Worldwide Flight Services said it was able to open a new cargo station for handling emergency cargo within 72 hours of the airport’s request by transferring personnel from its operation in Brussels. Equipment such as fork lifts and slave pallets was borrowed from facilities in Belgium and the Netherlands.

AirBridgeCargo, the scheduled airline subsidiary of Moscow-based Volga Dnepr Group that operates 18 Boeing 747s, allowed their new facility, which was scheduled to open in a few weeks, to be temporarily used for the operation. The airport built the larger warehouse to allow ABC to expand operations at Liege from eight flights per week to 30 per week to meet growing cargo demand.

WFS, which will operate the facility for ABC, said it expects to handle up to 14 freighters per week for the WHO through the end of May.

The WFP estimates it will need $280 million simply to cover the costs of storing and moving supplies, not including procurement. Ghebreyesus urged donors to support the logistics system.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his administration would halt funding to the WHO while it investigates the group’s alleged mismanagement of the coronavirus response. In fiscal year 2019, the U.S. provided the group $453 million.

General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – Image WHO

In January, the WHO and World Economic Forum formed the Pandemic Supply Chain Network to develop a logistics market that can procure, allocate and distribute personal protective equipment, laboratory testing and diagnostic supplies, oxygen, ventilators, and related resources.

The WHO, with the help of the Clinton Health Access Initiative and UNICEF, has developed a forecasting tool to help governments, humanitarian organizations and private partners estimate requirements for essential supplies needed to address COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the WHO’s operations and logistics arm has organized shipments of critical supplies from Dubai to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for onward distribution to 34 African countries.The WHO says it has developed a plan to distribute 340 million surgical masks to 120 countries, and discussions are underway with WFP to prepare the distribution strategy.