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BBC World interviews Crown Agents on the challenges of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out in developing countries  /

Delivering the vaccine is only half of the story- developing countries face the challenge to ensure the vaccine reaches its beneficiaries, including those in the most remote and hard-to-reach communities. 

22 March 2021

Crown Agents was invited to talk to BBC’s Mark Lobel about the challenges of the COVAX vaccine roll-out in developing countries via an online interview for BBC World on Saturday, 20 March 2021.

Crown Agents is currently working across Africa with Ministries of Health, GAVI and UNICEF to plan the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine on the ground. To achieve this, the organisation is capitalizing on its decades-long experience of working on the continent, using its access to local networks and existing health infrastructure, gained through years of programme work to provide essential health services to rural and hard-to-reach communities.

COVAX, the global COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Initiative, is aimed at providing equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines across the globe. It has pledged to deliver 2 billion vaccines to the most vulnerable countries in the world until the end of this year.

Fergus Drake, CEO of Crown Agents, notes that whilst this is great progress, it is only half of the vaccine distribution story:  “Countries need to invest in their local infrastructure to engage and train community health workers and ensure suitable transport routes and strong, temperature-controlled supply chains are available to keep the vaccines stored safely and avoid spoilage.”

Having worked in challenging environments for over 180 years, Crown Agents currently works in over 60 countries, amongst them South Sudan, where the organisation transports drugs over 1000 kilometres in areas prone to extreme heat and floods, with armed groups operating close by as a result of internal conflict.

Fergus Drake tells the BBC: “We transport drugs on hard baked roads as it gets up to 50 degrees Celsius during the summer. But then it gets incredibly waterlogged during the rainy season and I’ve seen whole articulated lorries lost in some of these mud craters. You don’t want to be camping in the bush in South Sudan, with armed groups close by. So we use things like light aircraft and motorbikes to get to the most isolated communities across the country.” 

Crown Agents has been involved in the COVID-19 response since March 2020: Most recently, the organisation was commissioned by the Ministry of Health of Ukraine to conduct an emergency procurement of the COVID-19 vaccine, securing a supply of 2m doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine from the Serum Institute in India. Crown Agents also successfully transported over 200,000 vaccines to places like St Helena and the Falkland Islands. The transport of the vaccines presents an additional challenge of needing to maintain a temperature-controlled product supply chain so vaccines don’t spoil before they arrive at health facilities. Once at health facilities, communities need to be primed and ready to receive the vaccine.

Looking into the future, Fergus Drake notes that the world must ensure that COVID-19 does not become a “residual pandemic” like HIV/AIDS, with developing countries still battling the disease that kills 700,000 people a year globally.