The race to global vaccine equity amid disrupted supply chains

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  • Many countries lack the infrastructure to receive, maintain and distribute COVID-19 vaccines.
  • The World Economic Forum and UNICEF have been working with leading shipping, airline and logistics companies to support global vaccine equity.
  • Collective action has contributed to delivering more than 1 billion vaccines to vulnerable communities worldwide.

The race to global vaccine equity amid disrupted supply chains
Photo credit: Australian Embassy Jakarta / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Article by Anna Nagurney, Managing Director, Eugene M. Isenberg Chair in Integrative Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with the World Economic Forum’s Terms of Use.


COVID-19 will be remembered as the disease that shut down the world. In 2020, national lockdowns and border closures created unprecedented disruption across global supply chains. From the shortage of essential goods to significantly constrained capacity, transport bottlenecks, and skyrocketing freight costs, the pandemic exposed the fragility of supply chains and highlighted the need to build more resilient, inclusive global trade and transport systems.

The impact of delivering global vaccine equity.

All sectors, from healthcare to transport, expected the COVID-19 vaccine rollout to be a highly complex logistics operation given its large-scale nature and urgency to reach billions of people around the world. But the biggest challenge would prove to be ensuring an inclusive and sustainable distribution of doses to get everyone in every corner of the world vaccinated.

This called for a multi-stakeholder approach to drive equitable vaccine access across the globe. COVAX, the initiative co-led by the World Health Organization, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovations, alongside key delivery partner UNICEF, was created to respond to this challenge.

In December 2020, the World Economic Forum and UNICEF developed a charter with leading shipping, airline and logistics companies from the Forum’s Supply Chain & Transport Industry Action Group to support the inclusive, safe distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Companies committed to support COVAX with planning, preparedness, and prioritized transportation of COVID-19 vaccines and supplies.

In one year, this monumental, collective effort has contributed to COVAX delivering more than 1 billion vaccines to vulnerable communities primarily in low- and middle-income countries.

What’s the challenge?

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been called the greatest product launch ever. Considering the scale and urgency of the operation as well as the special storage and handling requirements, amid worldwide transport disruptions, it was a massive challenge from the start.

Countries need the infrastructure (airports, transport, warehousing) to receive the vaccines and maintain them at very low temperatures. They also need to ensure sufficient capacity to receive auxiliary supplies (needles, syringes, personal protection equipment) in advance. Very few countries in the world previously had capacity for, or experience with, ‘ultra-cold chain’ requirements e.g. -70°C storage. Although all countries have their own logistical challenges, countries in the global south need more support to successfully distribute the vaccines.

With global supply chains facing historic levels of disruption triggered by a public health crisis that is not yet over, capacity and staff shortages as well as significantly increased transport costs remain. As the world continues to compete for precious cargo space, partnerships that lead the way to recovery and facilitate delivery of essential, often lifesaving supplies, must be prioritized.

Our approach.

The unprecedented magnitude of the pandemic requires innovative and bold collective action from organizations, governments and industries to build systemic resilience and ensure vaccine equity.

The Forum, UNICEF and leading companies in the supply chain and transport sector signed a charter to support COVAX vaccine distribution, with signatories including A.P. Møller-MaerskDP WorldAntwerp Port AuthorityUPSDeutsche Post DHLAgility and many more. Under COVAX, UNICEF is playing a critical role in coordinating the distribution of vaccines to low- to middle-income countries.

Since launching this public-private initiative in December 2020, collaboration has contributed to a more prepared supply chain ecosystem with many stakeholders going above and beyond normal business practice. Airlines got ready to transport unprecedented vaccine volumes and prioritized vaccine shipments – with ocean carriers prioritizing COVAX shipments – assuring delivery of syringes and safety boxes in times of substantial capacity limitations and backlogs.

Several signatories presented concrete proposals for pro bono support, guided by a mapping of needs carried out by UNICEF with support from industry. These include secondments of specialist logistics personnel to support the Global Logistics Coordination Cell in Copenhagen and operational assistance at regional and country levels, including additional efforts on warehousing and cold chain infrastructure.

The companies are aware that the engagement is for the long haul, with many committing to critically important long-term partnership. The supply chain and transport community support for building capacity, preparedness and resilience has proven to be central in facilitating an inclusive response.

  • UPS, through the UPS Foundation, supported the delivery of 1.3 billion vaccines worldwide and 3,000 oxygen concentrators to India during the country’s deadly second wave of COVID-19. The UPS Foundation also supported delivery of 45 metric tons of nutrition supplies to Chad, ensuring that 3,000 children had access to lifesaving support.
  • DP World and UNICEF announced a three-year multi-million-dollar partnership to support the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and related immunization supplies in low- and lower-middle-income countries. DP World’s warehouse facilities in Dubai are providing UNICEF optimal access to numerous countries – notably in the Middle East and Africa.
  • Deutsche Post DHL Group provided the support of their logisticians to UNICEF logistics teams in Copenhagen and Dubai following a request for technical expertise to support scale-up capacity for COVAX rollout. Their expertise is helping UNICEF track COVID-19 vaccine shipments, monitor supply forecasts, provide analyses on streamlining shipment planning, and manage COVAX supplies strategically prepositioned in Dubai.
  • Port of Antwerp initiated engagement with UNICEF through the Forum’s Industry Action Group and is now partnering to promote more sustainable supply chains and optimize transport corridors and reduce bottlenecks in West Africa.

Although the pandemic has disrupted supply chains worldwide, it has also highlighted opportunities where partnerships can lead to common good. In the face of the most recent refugee crisis unfolding on the borders of Europe, leaders from the Supply Chain & Transport Industries have responded by endorsing a call for action that enables the UNICEF-COVAX Charter to be expanded. Collective action is vital to realize the systemic improvements needed for a more just, sustainable and resilient outcome post-pandemic and ensure vaccine equity. Securing a consistent flow of essential goods is critical for trade continuity and protecting lives impacted by global emergencies and catastrophic events.

The Logistics Emergency Team, a Forum initiative supporting the humanitarian sector when crisis strikes, was activated to support COVAX and facilitate movement of COVID-19 medical supplies

How can you get involved?

The Supply Chain & Transport Industry Action Group is an initiative of the Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Mobility.

Companies are invited to join the platform to share their expertise, participate in projects and help accelerate development of a more sustainable, inclusive and resilient transport and supply systems.


Photo credit: Australian Embassy Jakarta / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

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