Gates Foundation offers $4 million to fix syringe shortage for COVID-19 shots

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is stepping up efforts to address a looming deficit of syringes for Covid shots, providing about $4 million to help Kenyan manufacturer Revital Healthcare more than triple production.

Shortages of syringes and other supplies are threatening to complicate the rollout of Covid 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.

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Narrowing a glaring gap in access to Covid shots remains the top concern, especially in Africa, where just 6% of the population is fully vaccinated. Covax, the World Health Organization-backed program to distribute Covid 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, Orin Levine, director of the Gates Foundation’s global delivery programs, said in an interview.

Unprecedented demand

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’ve received, the WHO wrote in an email Wednesday.

When it comes to syringes, export restrictions and rising freight costs are hampering efforts to keep up with unprecedented demand, said Surabhi Rajaram, a Gates program 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 child health program has estimated a potential shortfall of as many as 2.2 billion syringes for Covid vaccines and routine immunizations in 2022.

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

Another challenge is that “the entire world is set up to give vaccinations using 0.5 milliliter syringes, Levine said. The Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE shot, meanwhile, requires 0.3 milliliter syringes that are in short supply. Gates 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 immunization needs in Africa, according to a statement. The insufficient supply globally is a dilemma that’s been overlooked, according to Roneek Vora, director of sales, marketing and development at Revital.

“It’s a major concern for various countries in Africa, he said. “If they can’t get the syringes in time, these vaccines basically are going to be of no use.

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