15 June 2021 | Press releases

Unprecedented cooperation with global oxygen suppliers paves way to increase access for low- and middle-income countries to address COVID-19 crisis

Geneva, 15 June 2021 – Unitaid and the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) are pleased to announce agreements[1] with Air Liquide and Linde respectively, which provide a pathway to increase access to medical oxygen in low- and middle-income countries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Medical oxygen shortages around the world have been a tragic feature of the pandemic, impacting the poorest countries disproportionately. These access difficulties were entrenched in many parts of the world before COVID-19, and have been exacerbated by the pandemic, putting strain on fragile health systems and resulting in preventable deaths. Latest estimates[2] suggest that around 1 million critically-ill COVID-19 patients in low- and middle-income countries need 2.2 million oxygen cylinders (15.1 million cubic metres) a day at the moment, with concerning surges reported in several countries in Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia.

The agreements come following intense engagement with the world’s major oxygen suppliers by the COVID-19 Oxygen Emergency Taskforce. This group of partners[3], led by Unitaid and Wellcome under the ACT-Accelerator Therapeutics pillar, has been working together over the past four months to address the global oxygen crisis, building on the strong track record of the agencies involved. This unprecedented collaboration with industry aims to overcome fundamental issues such as unstable funding commitments and insufficient infrastructure, which have limited the availability of medical oxygen.

Under the two memoranda of understanding signed with Air Liquide and Linde, each company has committed to work with ACT-A global health partners to facilitate equitable access to oxygen in a number of priority countries, to meet the emergency needs of the COVID-19 pandemic. The collaboration with each supplier also aims to build a framework for local contractual agreements – in line with standard public procurement practices – which could form the basis of longer-term purchasing deals by governments and global agencies that fund access to medical oxygen, to avoid a shortage of supply as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Carl Bildt, WHO Special Envoy for the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) and former Prime Minister of Sweden said: “Without a much improved supply of oxygen we will see the global numbers of people dying from COVID rising even faster. That’s why an improved public-private partnership is so necessary, and the role of industry is absolutely essential. I know from experience that it is a powerful combination when governments, multilaterals, and the private sector work together to solve massive issues. These pioneering oxygen agreements are urgently needed to save lives.”

Dr Philippe Duneton, Executive Director of Unitaid, said: “We welcome the engagement from Air Liquide and Linde. This is the first time such an agreement has been made to help facilitate equitable access to oxygen, an essential, lifesaving medicine. We hope that other oxygen suppliers will now follow suit and come to the table. There is a real opportunity to change the course of history – both for the COVID-19 pandemic, and for other areas where medical oxygen is so vital but has been often lacking, including pneumonia control, treating women who develop complications in childbirth and trauma patients.”

Under this initiative, Unitaid and CHAI, together with the Oxygen Emergency Taskforce partners, will seek to mobilise resources to fund medical oxygen storage and infrastructure, pay for emergency supplies, and finance the transportation of equipment and other tools needed for safe, resilient medical oxygen systems. Market interventions including advance purchase commitments and guarantees could form part of this package of measures. An estimated $400 million is needed immediately to enable this vital work to take place.

The Taskforce is also working to address supply shortages for other vital commodities, including oxygen concentrators and pressure swing absorption (PSA) plants, and connect countries to sources of financing for oxygen requests, including the Global Fund’s C-19 RM mechanism and the World Bank’s COVID-19 emergency health response.

Zachary Katz, Vice President of Essential Medicines at CHAI, said: “These agreements pave the way for wider use of medical oxygen at a time when the world continues to suffer acute shortages. We applaud Air Liquide and Linde and look forward to working together to expand access to oxygen to those most in need.”

Jean-Marc de Royere, Senior Vice President and member of the Air Liquide Group Executive Committee in charge of social programs, said: “Striving to improve oxygen access in LMICs is an integral part of our sustainable development commitments announced in March 2021. Today’s announcement is also in line with Air Liquide teams’ mobilisation since the beginning of the pandemic in the countries where the Group operates. Leveraging on its technical expertise and know-how, the Group will work along with Unitaid and CHAI, contributing to solutions to increase oxygen access in LMICs countries where demand is high and operational conditions are challenging.”

Sanjiv Lamba, Chief Operating Officer at Linde, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of access to healthcare for all. Linde’s employees stepped up in these extraordinary times to produce and deliver medical oxygen, playing a critical role in supporting healthcare systems across the world. All these efforts will be in vain if we cannot work together to improve access to medical oxygen in low and moderate income countries, overcoming the many challenges. Linde is proud to partner with Unitaid and the Clinton Health Access Initiative and we look forward to working together to increase access to oxygen on a fair and equitable basis.”

[1] These agreements, in the form of non-binding Memoranda of Understanding, have been entered into on a non-exclusive basis. Agreements with other medical oxygen suppliers are being pursued.

[2] https://www.path.org/programs/market-dynamics/covid-19-oxygen-needs-tracker/

[3] Partner organisations include Unitaid, Wellcome, WHO (and the biomedical consortium it coordinates), Unicef, The Global Fund, the World Bank, UNOPS, the Every Breath Counts coalition, CHAI, PATH, Save the Children, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Access to Medicine Foundation.

Background notes
Even before COVID-19, pneumonia was the world’s biggest infectious killer of adults and children, claiming the lives of 2.5 million people in 2019. The pandemic has exacerbated this problem, particularly in ‘double-burden’ countries which are contending with high levels of pneumonia and COVID-19. As well as meeting the immediate needs of the pandemic, the COVID-19 Oxygen Emergency Taskforce would look to leverage gains in this area to help with long-term pneumonia control.

About the COVID-19 Oxygen Emergency Taskforce
The COVID-19 Oxygen Emergency Taskforce was launched in February 2021 to bring together key partners already working to address critical oxygen gaps, as part of a coordinated COVID-19 response. The taskforce is co-led by Unitaid and Wellcome, under the Therapeutics Pillar of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. Partner organisations include Unitaid, Wellcome, the World Health Organization (and the biomedical consortium it coordinates), UNICEF, The Global Fund, the World Bank, UNOPS, the Every Breath Counts coalition, CHAI, PATH, Save the Children, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Access to Medicine Foundation.

About Unitaid
Unitaid is a global health agency engaged in finding innovative solutions to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases more quickly, cheaply, and effectively, in low- and middle-income countries. Its work includes funding initiatives to address major diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, as well as HIV co-infections and co-morbidities such as cervical cancer and hepatitis C, and cross-cutting areas, such as fever management. Unitaid is now applying its expertise to address challenges in advancing new therapies and diagnostics for the COVID-19 pandemic, serving as a key member of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. Unitaid is hosted by the World Health Organization.

About CHAI
The Clinton Health Access Initiative, Inc. (CHAI) is a global health organisation committed to saving lives and reducing the burden of disease in low-and middle-income countries. CHAI works with its partners to help strengthen the capabilities of governments and local private sectors to create and sustain high-quality health systems. For more information, please visit: clintonhealthaccess.org.

Media contacts
Hervé Verhoosel, Unitaid, Geneva | verhooselh@unitaid.who.int | tel. +44 77 29 618 634

Maggie Zander, Unitaid, Geneva | zanderm@unitaid.who.int | tel. +41 79 593 17 74

Regan Lachapelle, CHAI, Boston | rlachapelle@clintonhealthaccess.org | tel. +1 857-208-2788

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