Spiralling crisis: Covid-19 sparking 'oxygen emergency' says UN

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A patient with the Covid-19 breaths in oxygen in hospital.
A patient with the Covid-19 breaths in oxygen in hospital.
Rodger Bosch, AFP

The Covid-19 pandemic has left an already strained medical oxygen supply gasping for breath, with the UN and its partners warning Thursday that $1.6 billion was needed to address the global emergency.

Covid-19 has put massive pressure on health systems around the world, and in particular in poorer countries, where many hospitals have faced oxygen shortages.

This has resulted in preventable deaths and forced families of hospitalised patients to pay extra to ensure access to oxygen for their loved ones.

The WHO-led ACT-Accelerator, a globally-pooled hunt for Covid-19 vaccines, diagnostics and treatments, said on Thursday it was launching an Oxygen Emergency Taskforce to address the spiralling crisis.

"This is a global emergency that needs a truly global response," said Philippe Duneton, head of the international health agency Unitaid, which co-leads the therapeutics pillar of ACT.

A wide range of organisations are participating in the taskforce, including WHO, Unicef, the Global Fund, World Bank and Save the Children.

The global supply of oxygen was already constrained prior to the pandemic for treating things like pneumonia - which kills some 2.5 million people annually.

But Covid-19 has significantly exacerbated the problem.

An estimated half-million Covid-19 patients in low and middle-income countries alone need 1.1 million cylinders of oxygen every day, Thursday's statement said.

At the same time, 25 countries, mostly in Africa, are reporting surging demand.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has taken this acute shortage and made it a full-blown emergency," Henrietta Fore, who heads the UN's children's agency Unicef, said in the statement.

She stressed that addressing the oxygen gap would go beyond helping with Covid-19 treatment and avoiding preventable deaths.

It would also "help to improve health systems and health outcomes beyond Covid-19 in the long term, including for the many newborns and children who require oxygen to survive."

The new taskforce has determined that $90 million is needed immediately to address the key challenges in oxygen access and delivery in 20 countries, including in Malawi, Nigeria and Afghanistan.

But the overall needs are far greater, with an estimated $1.6 billion needed this year alone to stabilise the global oxygen supply and ensure access.

Unitaid and its ACT partner Wellcome, a global charity, said they would put forward $20 million immediately, and called for other donors to step up.

"We need to urgently increase access to medical oxygen to ensure patients are benefiting regardless of where they live and ability to pay," Wellcome chief operating officer Paul Shreier said in the statement.

"International solidarity is the quickest - and only - way out of this pandemic."

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