Local production could solve shortages of essential pandemic-fighting equipment, writes Joshua Setipa
The new coronavirus has exposed the staggeringly uneven distribution of life-saving medical equipment across the world. Ventilators are an essential tool in the treatment of respiratory illnesses, including severe cases of Covid-19, yet across 41 African countries there are fewer than 2,000 ventilators serving hundreds of millions of people.
A recent investigation by the New York Times identified that 10 African countries have no ventilators at all. From masks and gloves to diagnostic kits and materials, already vulnerable nations are underequipped, even in ‘normal’ circumstances.
Now the pandemic has compounded what was already an acute problem by breaking supply chains and spurring stockpiling amongst those who can afford it. Nations without the influence or affluence to secure orders of protective equipment, diagnostics and medical devices find their response to this pandemic severely limited. Weak health systems are quickly overwhelmed, leaving millions to choose between risking infection from coronavirus or foregoing treatment at clinics for other critical health conditions.
This dire situation brings with it an unprecedented opportunity to build local manufacturing capability across the developing world, empowering countries to ensure their populations get the equipment they need. Doing so will not only support the immediate response to this pandemic but create more resilient health systems and supply chains going forward.
Local production of essential equipment in some developing countries – particularly for personal protective equipment, diagnostics and medical devices – is currently very limited due to lack of access to information, technical expertise and regulatory guidance. Countries are overly reliant on international supply chains for these products, which can lead to challenges when global demand rises and supply is limited.
In the face of COVID-19, the public and private sector must come together to lend crucial expertise and technology to enable countries and regions to develop their own manufacturing capabilities. The global economy will be unable to fully recover until all countries can identify and care for those infected with the virus, a fact that reinforces the case that there is no binary choice between lives and livelihoods. The only way to get the world’s economy back on track is to build unity, share knowledge and technology and ensure that together we’re slowing the spread of the virus while accelerating research and development into diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.
Already, this is happening on an ad hoc basis. Medical device company Medtronic recently announced that it would make the full design specifications and production manuals for one of its ventilators available to anyone for free. Other public and private innovators have made important commitments to open innovation models and pledged to share their knowledge and technology. However, proper global coordination is needed to maximize the potential impact – both short- and long-term.
That is the driving force behind the Tech Access Partnership (TAP), a new platform created by the UN Technology Bank, with support from the UN Development Programme, World Health Organization and UN Conference on Trade and Development. TAP will connect global innovators, manufacturers, universities and others with local manufacturers in developing countries to share data, knowledge, design specifications and other relevant information and support. Set up in 2016 by the United Nations General Assembly with a specific mandate to strengthen the science, technology and innovation capacity of least developed countries, the UN Tech Bank and its core partners are offering a new solution to get around barriers and ensure quality health technology reaches those that need it most.
For countries and local businesses to make the most out of this technology being made available, there is still a need for access to financial support. In the future, the new partnership aims to provide opportunities for manufacturers in developing countries to secure the financing needed to re-purpose and scale up local production through collaborations with international financial institutions.
In the face of a global pandemic, we all have a role to play. For TAP to be successful, governments, the private sector, civil society and development partners must each do their part to address critical shortages of supplies and equipment.
At the turn of the century, with the prospect of millions of people dying from AIDS due to lack of access to antiretrovirals, activists around the world pushed governments to put lives over profits. Working with generic manufacturers in the Global South, generic versions of antiretrovirals were mass produced and estimates suggest more than 10 million lives were saved.
We are once again at a point in time where ensuring that people have access to lifesaving health technologies—from masks, to ventilators, to testing—is critical for the health of the entire world. This unprecedented crisis requires an equally exceptional response, one that unites sectors and empowers the world’s poorest countries to build their own capacity, making them stronger and more resilient now and in the future.
The road to recovery will be long and difficult. But we know that to get there, we must go together. By acting together now, we can address the systemic bottlenecks that are preventing the poorest and most marginalized communities from accessing lifesaving health technologies and equip them with the tools they need to build a brighter future.
––Setipa is Managing Director, UN Technology Bank