International aid organisation Unitaid has invested tens of millions of dollars to accelerate lifesaving testing and treatment solutions for Covid-19.

Leading the Programme Division at the organisation, Robert Matiru is responsible for planning, developing and implementing a complex portfolio of health product innovation investments valued at $1.3bn. 

Having previously served as Head of Operations and Vaccine Deployment for the World Health Organisation’s H1N1 Pandemic Response, in addition to holding the position of COO at the Global TB Drug Facility, Matiru is an expert in breaking oxygen initiatives. 

“Covid took the world by storm and brought the biggest global health crisis we’ve seen in the century.” 

“Covid unmasked just how fragile and weak the medical oxygen ecosystem was and has been in LMICs and upper middle income and high income countries.” 

Coordination through collaboration 

The oxygen emergency task force was created in February at the height of the pandemic to help come together and assess and validate global oxygen needs. 

$3.5bn was provided by the US government, USAID and other governments to enable the task force to link the needs that needed to be rapidly assessed to grant financing. 

“The demand for oxygen, compared to PPE or vaccines was somewhat downplayed,” said Matiru. 

Demand was accelerated through the efforts of the media to bring attention to the global oxygen crisis. 

“The task force has also focused on how we can unlock the committed financing more rapidly, and that has meant a lot of work on the supply side.” 

Working with companies such as Afrox, Unitaid was able to open up dialogue for the potential of commercially viable oxygen initiatives, in addition to focusing on the essential humanitarian response needed for LMICs. 

Over the past 12 months, Unitaid has mobilised ‘unprecedented financing’ as a task force, financing $700bn and counting. 

This has led to investments in PSA plants, concentrators, and meeting bulk liquid oxygen requirements. 

“Despite this, we still have a big gap. We need to raise a further billion dollars in the next year alone,” explained Matiru. 

“Hence the need to maintain momentum. We cannot be complacent. Although we’re not seeing the surges that we saw last year, in some countries it’s critical.” 

Hundreds of million dollars, mostly in capex, has been committed. Emphasising the need to maintain momentum to sustain such investments. Matiru stated that – if momentum is not sustained - it would be a ‘major travesty’ to not capitalise on what these investments have meant during the pandemic. 

“Oxygen is a high return on investment, that’s part of the investment case we are continuing to make.” 

Considering it a pillar of health ecosystems, Matiru added that, by investing in oxygen, organisations can convene to develop and advance the market and create new solutions. 

Further financing 

Elaborating on the needs to obtain further financing, Matiru said that more sustainable longer term solutions must be examined that rely on domestic financing. 

Blended forms of financing will be important and other public private partnership sources that must be tapped into. 

“If we can capitalise on the momentum of covid, I think that can certainly help but it has to be done sooner rather than later,” he added. 

“Now it’s time to start thinking about how we can blend financing.”