Technology sparks ‘turning point’ for getting COVID vaccines to many more people across the globe

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When COVID-19 vaccines began arriving in Ghana in 2021, authorities scrambled to get the life-saving doses to millions of people anxious to protect themselves and their families. They juggled purchase orders, approval letters and countless other details as part of the ambitious global vaccine rollout.

A year later, the profusion of emails and document searches has yielded to a streamlined information hub built by UNICEF and Microsoft for COVAX, the global mechanism to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines in a more equitable way.

Today, the effort has delivered more than 1.5 billion doses to 146 countries in the largest vaccine rollout in the world.

Launched in 2021, the information hub, which tracks COVAX’s vaccine supply chain, is now a key part of the initiative’s mission to get vaccines to low- and middle-income countries that might otherwise be left behind. In fact, more than 80% of the doses went to low- and lower middle-income countries.

The platform brought efficient deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines and syringes even to conflict settings like Syria and Yemen, and to remote places like the Himalayas in Nepal and the tiny Pacific island country of Vanuatu.

It is now also helping health and humanitarian workers collaborate across time zones and countries on deliveries to low-income countries like Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Rwanda, where COVAX’s 1 billionth dose landed in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

Despite much progress, many of the world’s 82 poorest countries have COVID-19 vaccination rates below 20% compared to two-thirds of the world’s richest countries which have reached the WHO’s goal of fully vaccinating 70% of their populations.

The info hub is a critical tool that UNICEF and partners use to provide transparency and access to essential information. The platform also plays a critical role in helping countries turn vaccines into vaccinations, especially now that supplies and logistics have stabilized.

The information hub came together as a collaboration between UNICEF’s Supply Division and Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact team, which works with non-profits. To respond quickly to the pandemic, the team tapped into Microsoft’s Disaster Response team, which places employees on volunteer technical missions that help organizations respond to crises like hurricanes and earthquakes.

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

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

“Microsoft brought a great contribution with best practices and design choices, and we’ve learned quite a lot,” says Steve Jones, chief of the Operational Analysis and Technology Center at UNICEF.

“What is most impressive is the speed we were able to rally a crew with different backgrounds and skillsets from around the world. Moreover, visibility of data has reduced misinformation and friction that sometimes arise in large, global missions. Being able to see the same information as everyone else has helped “harmonize the narrative” of fighting the pandemic,” he added.

The biggest satisfaction for all the team was watching a livestream of the historic milestone, when a plane carrying 600,000 vaccine doses landed in Ghana, feeling moved by the joy and relief of Ghana officials who greeted the plane and posed for pictures on the tarmac.

As shipments continued to other countries, countries in the information hub that received vaccines turned green on a map.

“I’ve worked with UNICEF for more than 20 years and just knowing what it takes to deliver to some of these places almost brings tears to my eyes,” said Dorcas Noertoft, senior contracts manager for UNICEF’s Supply Division.

“It speaks to how complex and global this effort is, and to track our progress and see the numbers grow and see that green is amazing.”

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