The technology is sparking a ‘tipping point’ in getting COVID vaccines to many more people around the world

As the COVID-19 vaccines began arriving in Ghana in 2021, Mrunal Shetty and his colleagues scrambled to deliver the life-saving doses to millions of people anxious to protect themselves and their families. They juggled purchase orders, letters of approval and countless other details as part of the vaccine’s ambitious global rollout.

“There were hundreds of emails on one topic, and at one point we literally had a whiteboard to document which shipment arrived when,” says Shetty, head of UNICEF’s health and nutrition division in Ghana. “The details were very difficult to follow.”

A year later, the plethora of emails and document searches has turned into a streamlined information hub built by UNICEF and Microsoft for COVAX, the global mechanism to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines more equitably. The effort delivered more than 1.5 billion doses to 146 countries in the world’s largest vaccine rollout. More than 80% of the doses went to low- and lower-middle-income countries. COVAX is co-led by UNICEF, which manages supply and delivery; Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance; World Health Organization; and the Coalition for Innovation in Epidemic Preparedness.

With the information center, Shetye can now call up a dashboard and see a single line for a COVAX shipment and related documents. His colleagues in the UNICEF Supply Unit and his health partners in Ghana can see the same information so everyone is on the same page. The system helps it prepare for supplies, manage stocks and supplies of the COVID-19 vaccine, and support health workers with vaccination campaigns across the country.

“The whole thing just became more manageable and understandable,” says Shetty.

A health manager in Ghana, left, and UNICEF staff examine a shipment of COVID-19 vaccines in Ghana. (Photo by Francis Kokoroko, courtesy of UNICEF)

Launched in 2021, the data center, which tracks COVAX’s vaccine supply chain, has become a key part of the initiative’s mission to deliver vaccines to low- and middle-income countries that might otherwise be left behind. It provides efficient deliveries of vaccines and syringes against COVID-19 to conflict environments such as Syria and Yemen, and to remote locations such as the Himalayas of Nepal and the small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

The platform also helps health and aid workers collaborate across time zones and countries in deliveries to low-income countries such as Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Rwanda, where the 1 billionth dose of COVAX landed in Rwanda’s capital Kigali in January 2022.

Despite great progress, the need for work is still vital. Many of the world’s 82 poorest countries have vaccination rates against COVID-19 below 20%, according to The New York Times. In contrast, about two-thirds of the world’s richest countries have met the World Health Organization’s goal of fully vaccinating 70% of their population.

“The goal of COVAX is to make vaccines against COVID-19 accessible to the entire population, regardless of where they are and what the income level of their countries is,” says Gemma Horta-Martinez, Supply Chain Manager of Monitoring and Strategic Data at UNICEF. “The Information Hub is a critical tool that UNICEF and partners use to ensure transparency and access to important information.”

A doctor receives an injection while people stand and clap
A doctor in Ethiopia receives a vaccine against COVID-19. (Photo: Tewodros Tadese, courtesy of UNICEF)

In the early days of COVAX supply, the lack of a transparent, cohesive view of the supply chain made the challenges of shortages, blockages and inadequate cold chain storage even more difficult. UNICEF staff, no stranger to vaccine operations, had to use disparate, inefficient systems to monitor timelines and constantly changing inventory.

Musonda Kasonde, UNICEF’s regional head of supplies for the Middle East and North Africa, recalls the stress of trying to ensure realistic delivery times for countries asking when the vaccines would arrive.

“One of the main challenges early on was trying to figure out who had what and where,” she says. “For me, having these dashboards and having access to this information was really the tipping point in our fight against the pandemic.”

UNICEF’s platform is also playing a critical role in helping countries turn vaccines into vaccines, especially now that supplies and logistics have stabilized. Countries using the platform for supply readiness and inventory management can more easily organize the storage, transportation, distribution, community outreach, and health worker training needed to get vaccines into people’s hands.

A man stands near vaccines against COVID-19
Vaccines against COVID-19 arrive in Afghanistan. (Photo: Omid Fazel, courtesy of UNICEF)

“You can track what’s coming,” Kassonde says. “You can make sure that the cold chain is in place and the national regulatory requirements are in place, and then you have a much smoother delivery into the country.”

The information center came together as a collaboration between UNICEF’s Procurement Division and Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact team, which works with non-profit organizations. To respond quickly to the pandemic, the team used Microsoft’s Disaster Response Team, which sends employees on volunteer technical missions that help organizations respond to crises such as hurricanes and earthquakes.

The platform was a complex project requiring scalability, flexibility and security to handle vast amounts of sensitive global data. It needed tight identity management for hundreds of users with varying levels of authorized access. It had to be easy to use. And it had to launch quickly to deal with the unfolding health crisis.

Microsoft engineer Erik Hanson and architect manager Marialina Bello knew they wanted to do meaningful work during the pandemic and had the expertise and leadership skills for the job. They quickly volunteered.

“We were able to really bring the breadth of Microsoft and just say, ‘How can we help?'” says Henson, who was the platform’s technical coordinator while Bello served as the primary mission coordinator. “What is most impressive is the speed with which we have been able to assemble a crew with different backgrounds and skills from around the world.”

Microsoft engineers in the United States, Italy and Australia worked with UNICEF engineers in Denmark and India to build the platform over several months using Azure DevOps, GitHub, Power BI and other modern tools.

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