MANILA — In late February, the Asian Development Bank’s trade and supply chain finance programs contacted partner banks to identify client companies involved in the COVID-19 supply chain, and work with them to address any bottlenecks or impediments in increasing production of critical health supplies. But banks were clueless.
ADB reached out to colleagues working in the medical field asking for the same information. But again, no one knew, said Steven Beck, head of ADB’s trade and supply chain finance.
Realizing a clear information gap on a critical component of the response, Beck’s team and data scientists from Coriolis Technologies decided to develop an online mapping tool to identify the companies supplying materials and locate where they are based. The goal is to help stakeholders — partner banks in addition to governments, organizations, health care professionals and other entities involved in the response — to identify companies involved in the product supply chain — such as surgical masks, ventilators, and respirators — and perhaps intervene where there are bottlenecks to meet increased demand.
Movement restrictions are isolating health workers and disrupting supply chains. So organizations are turning to drones, video chatting, mobile applications, and other tech solutions for help.
As COVID-19 spread globally, governments and organizations struggled to purchase medical products and equipment critical in the fight against the disease, as demand surged. There was a shortage of surgical masks as they were panic-bought en-masse, health care workers voiced concern about a lack of personal protective equipment, and hospitals pleaded for more respirators and ventilators.
Many of the medical products were stuck in China, a major manufacturing hub for medical protective equipment. Travel restrictions imposed by countries as the disease spread rapidly made moving goods a major challenge. There was also a lack of public information about where governments and organizations could purchase critical items.
The online mapping tool includes not just companies distributing the finished product, but also suppliers of raw materials.
For surgical masks that means identifying which companies are supplying the fabric, ear loops, and plastic materials; which companies are assembling them; and which companies are in charge of distribution. The tool also provides a contact number, as well as each company’s revenue and employee size, which could help procurement specialists determine a company’s manufacturing capacity.
The map, launched last month, provides some overview of individual countries’ and regions’ capacity in producing particular health supplies critical for COVID-19, although there are likely some companies that have not been captured in the initial phase. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the map only identified companies in Zambia and South Africa supplying the raw materials for surgical masks.
Beck said information was derived from “vast data pools of publicly available information.” ADB is now adding a help desk feature for companies that want to be included in the map.
An important insight from the map, Beck said, was keeping borders open for trade. The map shows how interdependent countries are to meet the need for critical health supplies.
“No one country presumably is going ... [to] be independent in terms of everything it needs, from the raw materials to each and every sort of component part to produce everything, right?” Beck said. “There needs to be a strong element of cooperation, and robust supply chains and trade is critical to that.”
The ADB official said it is now in the process of cleaning some of the data to provide more accurate information for companies. It is also looking at the possibility of adding certification information from regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a suggestion it received from those that have already accessed the tool.
In consultation with colleagues from the medical field within and outside ADB, it is also looking at adding information on other COVID-19-related products, such as gloves, test kits, as well as goods for vaccine research and development. Subsequently, it could also look at mapping vaccine distribution for COVID-19.
“Once we do have a vaccine — hopefully, we will have a vaccine — and assuming that that does happen, how do we ramp that up? How do we ramp up production of a vaccine super quickly? That's a big question. I think these maps could play a really important role in bringing everyone together, all the component bits that are required, to make that happen as efficiently as possible,” Beck said.
“That's something we'll be looking at as well as the distribution,” he said. It’s one thing to ramp it up, and another to deliver it and administer it around the world, he added.
Asked if there are plans to include companies producing oxygen concentrators, Beck said ADB will make inquiries with the medical community.
During the WHO press briefing on Wednesday, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said with new COVID-19 cases now reaching 1 million a week, the world needs 620,000 cubic meters of oxygen per day, or about 88,000 large cylinders. But several countries are facing challenges in obtaining oxygen concentrators, with 80% of the market owned by a few companies.