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Effective global vaccine supply chain can fuel vaccine equity

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Department of Health Abu Dhabi has spearheaded the HOPE Consortium’s mission to deliver vaccines globally.

Over the last two years, COVID-19 has been relentless in crossing borders and spreading to the furthest corners of the globe. There is universal consensus on vaccines being effective in the fight against the pandemic. However, vaccines solely do not save lives, without being coupled with an effective vaccination programme. 

Dr. Omar Najm, Director of Executive Affairs Office, Department of Health – Abu Dhabi, discusses in this interview how a global challenge exists in the transportation, storage, and distribution of vaccines. Compounded by the existing global supply chain challenges across the board, the high demand to vaccinate 70 per cent of the world population in 2021-2022, and the changing nature of the virus, he says makes this the biggest and most sophisticated airlift in history.

According to WHO, vaccine equity will accelerate the end of the pandemic. How crucial is it to establish an effective global vaccine and pharma supply chain?

In UAE and Abu Dhabi, collaboration across professional labels and geographies was a vital enabler in executing the vaccination programme that made UAE the number one country in vaccination rate per capita. In our experience in establishing the HOPE Consortium, we looked at every single step along the vaccine journey from delivery to effective vaccination and assembled the best in the world to provide solutions against each step. 

To that end, the Department of Health Abu Dhabi spearheaded the HOPE Consortium’s mission to deliver vaccines to all those in need around the world at the right time, in the right place and in the right conditions. Our partners include Etihad Cargo, AD Ports Group, Maqta Gateway, Rafed, and SkyCell, each of whom play a key role to ensure a smooth vaccine supply chain operation.

In facilitating vaccine deliveries across 60 countries in 2021, we quickly learned that we need to help establish the necessary medical and logistical infrastructure to ensure the absorption of vaccines and other pharma supplies. To better serve this need, we are pleased to have collaborated with UNICEF to deliver 65 ultra-cold freezers, enabling over 20 African nations to scale immunisation programmes using vaccines requiring ultra-cold storage.

Vaccine delivery is often not enough, particularly in hard-to-reach areas and parts of the African continent, which prompted us to add in-country vaccination services to help accelerate global immunisation and minimise vaccine wastage. The combined service, made possible through our partnership with Via Medica International, enables countries and communities with limited medical and logistical capacities to inoculate their populations quickly and efficiently, making sure that each vaccine delivered is a vaccine administered.

The partnership's outreach to the African region was further supported by Etihad Cargo's expansion of its pharma network and partnerships signed with Astral Aviation and Kenya Airways to ensure equitable access and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines through airfreight solutions on the African continent.

The final crucial component to establishing a robust global vaccine and pharma supply chain is the real-time monitoring of shipments, which is where we applied a unique blockchain-based tracking system called mUnity, managed by Maqta Gateway – one of the founding partners of the HOPE Consortium.

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Dr. Omar Najm, Director of Executive Affairs Office, Department of Health – Abu Dhabi
 

How can blockchain enabled supply chain ensure seamless tracking and delivery, and why is it key to integrate?

The journey of COVID-19 vaccines, from manufacturers to end users, involves navigating safety and security risks at every stage. COVID-19 vaccines are temperature-sensitive and have precise handling and storage requirements; and failure to comply can render them ineffective.

Blockchain can help us address these risks, as each transaction in the supply chain is documented on the blockchain, with security and privacy built into the system from within. This unalterable chain of data helps prevent the development of counterfeit shipments from hacked data and pinpoints any incidences of tampering during shipment.

One of the solutions that we deployed from day one is the live tracking of every single vaccine in the handling process. Developed and managed by Maqta Gateway, mUnity is a custom-built digital system built upon the tried and tested digital technology that was originally developed for managing marine shipments and port communities. This tracking system leverages the latest IoT devices and is further secured and authenticated by using blockchain technology for the first time in vaccine delivery.

Real-time tracking allows our team to instantly mitigate any issues that arise, minimise risks, ensure zero loss or waste due to security issues, temperature excursion or break. In turn, this allows us to reach more people for vaccinations in the shortest time possible. This blockchain-enabled tracking builds on what was developed initially by Maqta Gateway for the tracking of high worth items around the world such as diamonds. 

Can you tell us about the impact of the HOPE Consortium since its first year into operations?

Within one year of operations, the HOPE Consortium has made significant progress in furthering the global community’s mission of achieving mass and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines all corners the world.

Committed to facilitating vaccine storage, handling, and deliveries in scale, we installed the UAE’s largest freezer farm at the Rafed Distribution Centre in KIZAD. The facility can hold more than 120 million vaccine vials at any time across all the temperature requirement from -80 to +8 and ambient. This static capacity amount to a capacity to handle over 9 billion vaccine doses per year.

With the help of its partners, the Abu Dhabi-led initiative has successfully delivered over 250 million vaccine doses to-date in over 60 countries.

Over the course of our operations in 2021, we established many collaborations to strengthen Abu Dhabi as a logistical hub for life science, including establishing a vaccine corridor with Brussels airport (the largest life science airport in Europe) and Pharma.aero to deliver a masterclass in life science logistics from Abu Dhabi to the world.

What are the key priorities for the HOPE Consortium and the global vaccine supply chain landscape going into 2022?

Abu Dhabi has been recognised as the safest city in response to the pandemic two times in a row according to the DKG ranking and contributed to the UAE being recognised as the most COVID-resilient country in the world, according to the November 2021 ranking by Bloomberg. Most importantly, this is evidenced by one of the lowest rates of mortality globally along with the highest vaccination and testing rates per capita. Additionally, our contribution globally has been evident through our humanitarian efforts and the establishment of the HOPE Consortium.

After one year of operations, we still see an urgent need for vaccines and boosters across the global community. To better serve this need while leveraging our position as a pharma logistics hub and destination for global welfare, we want to establish dedicated trade lines with Europe that will boost the union of key compliant and sector certified supply chain stakeholders such as forwarders and ground handling agents.

In the months to come, we will continue to invest in strategic public and private sector collaborations as well as the allocation of expertise and resources to enhance the delivery of vaccines to countries across the world.

In parallel, we are confident in our vision to establish Abu Dhabi as a regional and global life science centre. Our leading life science logistics capabilities are being supported by an expanding investment in life science research, education, development, regulation, manufacturing, skills attraction and infrastructure. In addition to its hub position, Abu Dhabi’s key differentiator will continue to be its focus on the latest life science and biotechnology approaches and aspirations. 

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