Gates Foundation offers $5 million to fix syringe shortage for Covid-19 shots

Shortages of syringes and other supplies are threatening to complicate the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is stepping up efforts to address a looming deficit of syringes for Covid-19 vaccine shots, providing about US$4 million (S$5 million) to help Kenyan manufacturer Revital Healthcare more than triple production.

Shortages of syringes and other supplies are threatening to complicate the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines just as shipments to lower-income nations begin to pick up after months of delays. Lack of funds, transportation and training are also among the delivery challenges that could slow distribution.

Narrowing a glaring gap in access to Covid-19 vaccines remains the top concern, especially in Africa, where just 6 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.

Covax, the World Health Organisation-backed programme to distribute Covid-19 vaccines to every corner of the world, has fallen short of its targets this year. Getting those vaccines into arms is now the next challenge.

"It's hard to plan for vaccine plenty when you are in the middle of vaccine poverty, but that is about to change, and it's important that we also change," Dr Orin Levine, director of the Gates Foundation's global delivery programmes, said in an interview.

Countries such as Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa are already facing delays in obtaining syringes. Four others, including Djibouti and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have struggled to give people the doses they have, using less than half of what they have received, the WHO wrote in an e-mail on Wednesday (Nov 3).

When it comes to syringes, export restrictions and rising freight costs are hampering efforts to keep up with unprecedented demand, said Mr Surabhi Rajaram, a Gates programme officer. India and China account for most manufacturing of auto-disable vaccine syringes, which lock automatically to prevent reuse.

Although Unicef has tripled orders, further steps are needed. The United Nations child health programme has estimated a potential shortfall of as many as 2.2 billion syringes for Covid-19 vaccines and routine immunisations in 2022.

"There are definitely shortages that are likely to manifest over the course of next year," Mr Rajaram said.

Another challenge is that "the entire world is set up to give vaccinations" using 0.5ml syringes, Dr Levine said. The Pfizer-BioNTech shot, meanwhile, requires 0.3ml syringes that are in short supply.

The Gates Foundation and others have sought to shift to manufacturing of that syringe without disrupting supplies of the other, he said. The funds will allow Revital to boost syringe production to a level that's enough to cover more than half of the routine immunisation needs in Africa, the Gates Foundation said.

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