Our work overseas

Transporting 1 billion syringes to the world

The word unprecedented will always be associated with 2020.

By Robert Matthews 23/02/2021

The word unprecedented will always be associated with 2020. For months on end, it was repeated on TV, in newspapers and by friends and family to describe the pandemic and its effects on people in every corner of the world.

As the head of the Medical Devices Unit in UNICEF Supply Division, 2021 is shaping up to be another unprecedented year – perhaps even more so than the last, but for different reasons. Our team, working in Copenhagen, Denmark has taken on the job of buying and delivering up to 1 billion syringes to low- and lower-middle income countries on behalf of the COVAX Facility, a global initiative to ensure fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for countries around the world. These syringes will help the safe rollout of those vaccines.

A milestone moment

Today, as I received news that the first of these syringes left Dubai destined for the Maldives, I could breathe a sigh of relief that this was happening. For the past few weeks, my team felt like we were on the start line of a Formula One race, engines revving and ready to go.

© UNICEF/UN0377314/Asamoah
© UNICEF/UN0377314/Asamoah

Robert Matthews, head of the Medical Devices unit at UNICEF Supply Division demonstrates the auto-disable syringes and safety boxes that are being used in the COVID-19 response.

The task of procuring 1 billion syringes, funded by COVAX, began in the summer of 2020. It came on the heels of an announcement that the COVAX Facility intended to secure 2 billion doses of quality-assured COVID-19 vaccines for its participating countries. We knew we had a mammoth operation ahead of us; both my team in purchasing syringes and safety boxes, and for colleagues procuring the vaccines.

In a usual year, UNICEF procures between 600-800 million syringes for children’s immunizations around the world. Now we are more than doubling those numbers, while stockpiling half a billion syringes in our Copenhagen and Dubai warehouses so they could be shipped in advance of the vaccines.

Safety first

UNICEF only buys auto-disable syringes in support of government immunization campaigns. In fact, we are the largest procurer of this type of syringe in the world. They can only be used once, meaning they significantly reduce the risk of often life-threatening diseases picked up from syringe reuse.

With safe injection equipment we work to guarantee that the good intention embodied in the vaccine does not do harm. And with safety boxes shipped along with the syringe, healthcare workers can dispose of them in a way that helps to protect their patients and families.

The auto-disable syringe might be a very simple innovation, but it really is a lifesaving device.

Expertise to deliver

Although the drive to procure and deliver syringes and safety boxes is a huge challenge, we can rely on decades of experience in this field. We spend considerable time looking for the best value, quality-assured syringes to buy on behalf of 100 countries. Another advantage is that we already had contracts with manufacturers who produce WHO-approved syringes and safety boxes, and because of our strong relationships with them, we secured the initial 520 million syringes quickly.

© UNICEF/UNI357243/Desjardins
© UNICEF/UNI357243/Desjardins

9-month-old Djonice receives a routine vaccine in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the next months, hundreds of millions of syringes and safety boxes will leave UNICEF warehouses on a journey that will eventually end with the delivery of a lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine into a person’s arm. They’ll be in the cargo hold of airplanes and the containers of shipping lines, being distributed around the world to help end the acute phase of the pandemic.

But our work to protect children from serious diseases such as measles, diphtheria and hepatitis continues. Up to 800 million more syringes will be used to vaccinate children this year against what can be fatal infections. For me, the COVID-19 response is a big part of this much bigger operation, one we must keep at the forefront of our efforts if children, their families and their communities are to be kept healthy and safe.

Robert Matthews is head of the Medical Devices Unit in UNICEF Supply Division, Copenhagen.