The new coronavirus exposed the incredibly uneven distribution of life-saving medical equipment worldwide. Ventilators are an essential tool in the treatment of respiratory diseases, including severe cases of COVID-19, but in 41 African countries there are less than 2,000 ventilators serving hundreds of millions of people.
A recent New York Times investigation found that 10 African countries do not have fans. From masks and gloves to kits and diagnostic supplies, countries that are already vulnerable are under-equipped, even under "normal" circumstances.
Now, the pandemic has aggravated what was already a serious problem, breaking supply chains and stimulating inventory among those who can afford it. Nations without the influence or wealth to secure orders for protective equipment, diagnostics and medical devices find their response severely limited to this pandemic. Weak health systems are quickly overwhelmed, leaving millions to choose between the risk of coronavirus infection or previous treatment in clinics for other critical health conditions.
This dire situation brings with it an unprecedented opportunity to increase local production capacity across the developing world, enabling countries to ensure that their populations get the equipment they need. Doing so will not only support an immediate response to this pandemic, but will create health systems and more resilient supply chains in the future.
Currently, local production of essential equipment in some developing countries – particularly for personal protective equipment, diagnostics and medical devices – is very limited due to a lack of access to information, technical knowledge and regulatory guidance. Countries rely heavily on international supply chains for these products, which can lead to challenges when global demand increases and supply is limited.
Faced with COVID-19, the public and private sectors must come together to provide crucial knowledge and technology to enable countries and regions to develop their own manufacturing capabilities. The global economy cannot fully recover until all countries can identify and care for those infected with the virus, a fact that reinforces the fact that there is no binary choice between lives and livelihoods. The only way to recover the world economy is to build unity, share knowledge and technology and ensure that together we slow the spread of the virus, accelerating research and development in diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.
This is already happening on an ad hoc basis. Medical device company Medtronic recently announced that it would make all design specifications and production manuals for one of its ventilators free. Other public and private innovators have made important commitments to open innovation models and have pledged to share their knowledge and technology. However, adequate global coordination is needed to maximize the potential impact – both in the short and long term.
This is the driving force behind the Tech Access Partnership (TAP), a new platform created by the UN Technology Bank, with the support of the UN Development Program, the World Health Organization and the United Nations 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. Created in 2016 by the United Nations General Assembly, with a specific mandate to strengthen the science, technology and innovation capacity of the least developed countries, the UN Bank of Technology and its main partners are offering a new solution to overcome barriers and ensure a quality health technology reaches those who need it most.
For countries and local businesses to take full advantage of this available technology, access to financial support is still required. In the future, the new partnership aims to provide opportunities for manufacturers from developing countries to secure the necessary financing to redefine and expand 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 do their part to resolve the critical shortage of supplies and equipment.
At the turn of the century, with the prospect of millions of people dying of AIDS due to lack of access to antiretrovirals, activists around the world pressured governments to put lives above profits. Working with generic manufacturers in the Global South, generic versions of antiretrovirals have been mass produced and estimates suggest that more than 10 million lives have been saved.
We are once again at a time when ensuring that people have access to life-saving health technologies – from masks, ventilators and tests – is critical to the health of the world. This unprecedented crisis requires an equally exceptional response, which unites sectors and enables 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 need to go together. By acting together now, we can resolve the systemic bottlenecks that prevent the poorest and most marginalized communities from accessing life-saving health technologies and equipping them with the tools necessary to build a better future.
- Setipa is managing director of the UN Technology Bank.