SEATTLE, Washington — Since COVID-19 emerged in China and spread worldwide, the medical community has been grappling with a shortage of ventilators, which are sometimes crucial to save the lives of COVID-19 patients. While there has been much coverage given to the ongoing shortage of ventilators, less attention is being paid to another shortage primarily affecting developing countries: a shortage of medical-grade oxygen. While only around 5% of COVID-19 patients will need a ventilator, around 15% will need supplemental oxygen via oxygen tanks.
The Oxygen Shortage
Oxygen tanks are essential and lifesaving medical supplies, and not just when treating COVID-19 patients. Doctors commonly use oxygen tanks when treating premature newborns and pneumonia patients. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been warning of the oxygen shortages in poorer regions for years. In 2017 the WHO, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UNICEF began working together to provide oxygen to countries in Southeast Asia, South America and Africa.
Oxygen Supply Obstacles
These organizations began the process of purchasing oxygen to fight the shortage in January 2020, right before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result, there quickly became much more demand than the supply could meet. The lack of supply of oxygen tanks has prompted aid organizations to turn to oxygen concentrators, small devices that supply oxygen by pulling it out of the surrounding air.
At a virtual press conference on 24 June 2020, the WHO announced that it had purchased 14,000 concentrators to be sent to 120 countries and that it had plans to buy another 170,000 over the next six months. Still, this is only a fraction of what may be required, because according to WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the global effort to treat COVID-19 patients may require a massive amount of oxygen, equivalent to around 88,000 tanks a day. Part of the problem is that there is an inadequate supply of oxygen tanks and concentrators, as the market is controlled by just a few companies that cannot keep up with the massive increase in demand sparked by the pandemic.
Another obstacle is the logistical challenge of transporting concentrators to the places where the oxygen shortage is most acute. For example, while UNICEF has purchased around 16,000 oxygen concentrators for about 90 countries, it has been able to deliver only around 700, largely because air traffic and other delivery methods have been severely impacted by the pandemic.
Solutions to the Obstacles
UNICEF and the WHO have had some success by teaming up with the World Food Program, whose planes deliver the concentrators when possible. The WHO was able to transport 300 concentrators to meet a shortage in Iraq in July 2020, by way of airlift from WHO warehouses in the United Arab Emirates.
UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are also challenging the oxygen shortage with their joint Oxygen Therapy Project, which was launched in 2017 and has been ramped up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Project aims to solve the oxygen shortage by helping countries calculate how much oxygen is needed and then providing recommendations on how it can be obtained.
With COVID-19 being a virus that can cause respiratory failure, oxygen shortages are more severe than ever. Aid organizations such as the WHO, UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are saving countless lives through ongoing efforts to provide oxygen to developing countries in need. There is still plenty of work that needs to be done, however, as lack of access to oxygen is a problem that predates the current pandemic and will likely long outlast it.
– Dylan Weir