Despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) designation of medical oxygen as an essential medicine in 2017, oxygen is still not consistently available in all care settings. Shortages in medical oxygen, which is essential for surgery, pneumonia, trauma, and other hypoxia conditions in vulnerable populations, existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and persist today. By one estimate, pre-pandemic, only 20% of patients in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) who needed medical oxygen received it. The pandemic tremendously increased the need for oxygen, further compounding access issues as oxygen became an indispensable treatment. During the peak of the pandemic, dozens of countries faced severe oxygen shortages due to patient surges impacting an already fragile infrastructure.
The core driver of this challenge is not a lack of funding and international attention but rather a lack of infrastructure to buy oxygen, not just equipment. Despite organizations such as Unitaid, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Clinton Health Access Initiative, UNICEF, WHO and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) prioritizing funding and provisions of medical oxygen, many countries still face critical shortages. Even fewer LMICs, such as Brazil, are truly oxygen self-sufficient. A broken and inequitable global oxygen delivery infrastructure inadvertently excludes low-income and rural area representation during the design phase. Furthermore, the current delivery infrastructure is composed of many individual funders and private and public stakeholders who do not work in a coordinated fashion because there is no global governing body to establish global policy, standards, and oversight; identify waste and redundancy; and ensure paths to self-sufficiency. As a result, LMICs are at the mercy of other nations and entities who may withhold oxygen during a crisis or fail to adequately distribute supply. It is time for aid organizations and governments to become more efficient and effective at solving this systemic problem by establishing global governance and investing in and enabling LMICs to become self-sufficient by establishing national infrastructure for oxygen generation, distribution, and delivery.
We propose transforming current interventions by centering the concept known as Oxygen as a Utility (OaaU), which fundamentally reimagines a country’s infrastructure for medical oxygen as a public utility supported by private investment and stable prices to create a functionable, equitable market for a necessary public health good. With the White House Covid Response Team shuttering in the coming months, USAID’s Bureau for Global Health has a unique opportunity to take a global leadership role in spearheading the development of an accessible, affordable oxygen marketplace. USAID should convene a global public-private partnership and governing coalition called the Universal Oxygen Coalition (UOC), pilot the OaaU model in at least two target LMICs (Tanzania and Uttar Pradesh, India), and launch a Medical Oxygen Grand Challenge to enable necessary technological and infrastructure innovation.
Challenge and Opportunity
There is no medical substitute for oxygen, which is used to treat a wide range of acute respiratory distress syndromes, such as pneumonia and pneumothorax in newborns, and noncommunicable diseases, such as asthma, heart failure, and COVID-19. Pneumonia alone is the world’s biggest infectious killer of adults and children, claiming the lives of 2.5 million people, including 740,180 children, in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic compounded the demand for oxygen, and exposed the lack thereof, with increased death tolls in countries around the world as a result.
For every COVID-19 patient who needs oxygen, there are at least five other patients who also need it, including the 7.2 million children with pneumonia who enter LMIC hospitals each year. [Ehsanur et al, 2021]. Where it is available, there are often improperly balanced oxygen distribution networks, such as high-density areas being overstocked while rural areas or tertiary care settings go underserved. Only 10% of hospitals in LMICs have access to pulse oximetry and oxygen therapy, and those better-resourced hospitals tend to be in larger cities closer to existing oxygen delivery providers.
This widespread lack of access to medical oxygen in LMICs threatens health outcomes and well-being, particularly for rural and low-income populations. The primary obstacle to equitable oxygen access is lack of the necessary digital infrastructure in-country. Digital infrastructure provides insights that enable health system managers and policymakers to effectively establish policy, manage the supply of oxygen to meet needs, and coordinate work across a complex supply chain composed of various independent providers. Until replicable and affordable digital infrastructure is established, LMICs will not have the necessary resources to manage a national oxygen delivery system, forecast demand, plan for adequate oxygen production and procurement, safeguard fair distribution, and ensure sustainable consumption.
Oxygen can be delivered in a number of forms—via concentrators, cylinders, plants, or liquid—and the global marketplace encompasses many manufacturers and distributors selling in multiple nations. Most oxygen providers are for-profit organizations, which are not commercially incentivized to collaborate to achieve equal oxygen access, despite good intentions. Many of these same manufacturers also sell medical devices to regulate or deliver oxygen to patients, yet maintaining the equipment across a distributed network remains a challenge. These devices are complex and costly, and there are often few trained experts in-country to repair broken devices. Instead of recycling or repairing devices, healthcare providers are often forced to discard broken equipment and purchase new ones, contributing to greater landfill waste and compounding health concerns for those who live nearby.
Common contributing causes for fragmented oxygen delivery systems in LMICs include:
- No national digital infrastructure to connect, track, and monitor medical oxygen supply and utilization, like an electrical utility to forecast demand and ensure reliable service delivery.
- No centralized way to monitor manufacturers, distributors, and the various delivery providers to ensure coordination and compliance with local policy.
- In many cases, no established local policy for oxygen and healthcare regulation or no means to enforce local policy.
- Lack of purchasing options for healthcare providers, who are often forced to buy whichever oxygen devices are available versus the type of source oxygen that best fits their needs (i.e., concentrator or liquid) due to cumbersome tender systems and lack of coordination across markets.
- Lack of trained experts to maintain and repair devices, including limited national standardized certification programs, resulting in the premature disposal of costly medical devices contributing to waste issues. Further, lack of maintenance fuels the vicious cycle of LMICs requiring more regular funding to buy oxygen devices, which can increase reliance on third parties to sustain oxygen needs rather than domestic demand and marketplaces.
Medical oxygen investment is a unique opportunity to achieve global health outcomes and localization policy objectives. USAID invested $50 million to expand medical oxygen access through its global COVID-19 response for LMIC partners, but this investment only scratches the surface of what is needed to deliver self-sustainment. In response to oxygen shortages during the peaks of the pandemic, the WHO, UNICEF, the World Bank, and other donors shipped hundreds of thousands of oxygen concentrators to help LMICs deal with the rise in oxygen needs. This influx of resources addressed the interim need but did not solve the persisting healthcare system and underlying oxygen infrastructure problems. In 2021, the World Bank made emergency loans available to LMICs to help them shore up production and infrastructure capabilities, but not enough countries applied for these loans, as the barriers to solve these infrastructure issues are complex, difficult to identify without proper data and digital infrastructure to identify supply chain gaps, and hard to solve with a single cash loan.
Despite heavy attention to the issue of oxygen access in LMICs, current spending does not go far enough to set up sustainable oxygen systems in LMICs. Major access and equity gaps still persist. In short, providing funding alone without a cohesive, integrated industrial strategy cannot solve the root problem of medical oxygen inequality.
USAID recently announced an expanded commitment in Africa and Asia to expand medical oxygen access, including market-shaping activities and partnerships. Since the pandemic began, USAID has directed $112 million in funding for medical oxygen to 50 countries and is the largest donor to The Global Fund, which has provided the largest international sums of money (more than $600 million) to increase medical oxygen access in over 80 countries. In response to the pandemic’s impacts on LMICs, the ACT-Accelerator (ACT-A) Oxygen Emergency Taskforce, co-chaired by Unitaid and the Wellcome Trust, has provided $700 million worth of oxygen supplies to over 75 countries and catalyzed large oxygen suppliers and NGO leaders to support LMICs and national healthcare ministries. This task force has brought together industry, philanthropy, NGO, and academic leaders. While USAID is not a direct partner, The Global Fund is a primary donor to the task force.
Without a sea change in policy, however, LMICs will continue to lack the support required to fully diagnosis national oxygen supply delivery system bottlenecks and barriers, establish national regulation policies, deploy digital infrastructures, change procurement approaches, enable necessary governance changes, and train in-country experts to ensure a sustained, equitable oxygen supply chain. To help LMICs become self-sufficient, we need to shift away from offering a piecemeal approach (donating money and oxygen supplies) to a holistic approach that includes access to a group of experts , funding for oxygen digital infrastructure systems, aid to develop national policy and governance mechanisms, and support for establishing specialty training and certification programs so that LMICs can self-manage their own medical oxygen supply chain. Such a development policy initiative relies on the Oxygen as a Utility framework, which focuses on creating a functional, equitable market for medical oxygen as a necessary public good. When achieved successfully, OaaU facilitates one fair rate for end-to-end distribution within a country, like other public utilities such as water and electricity.
A fully realized OaaU model within a national economy would integrate and streamline most aspects of oxygen delivery, from production to distribution of both the oxygen and the devices that dispense it, to training of staff on when to administer oxygen, how to use equipment, and equipment maintenance. This proposed new model coordinates industry partners, funders, and country leaders to focus on end-to-end medical oxygen delivery as an affordable, accessible utility rather than an in-kind development good. OaaU centers predictability, affordability, and efficiency for each stakeholder involved in creating sustainable LMIC medical oxygen supply chains. At its core, OaaU is about increasing both access and reliability by providing all types of oxygen at negotiated, market-wide, affordable, and predictable prices through industry partners and local players. This new business model would be sustainable by charging subscription and pay-per-use fees to serve the investment by private sector providers, each negotiated by Ministries of Health to empower them to manage their own country’s oxygen needs. This new model will incorporate each stakeholder in an LMIC’s healthcare system and facilitate an open, market-based negotiation to achieve affordable, self-sufficient medical oxygen supply chains.
Initial investment is needed to create a permanent oxygen infrastructure in each LMIC to digitally transform the tender system from an equipment and service or in-kind aid model to buying oxygen as a utility model. An industry business model transformation of this scale will require multistakeholder effort to include in-country coordination. The current oxygen delivery infrastructure is composed of many individual funders and private and public stakeholders who do not work in a coordinated fashion. At this critical juncture for medical oxygen provision, USAID’s convening power, donor support, and expertise should be leveraged to better direct this spending to create innovative opportunities. The Universal Oxygen Coalition would establish global policy, standards, and oversight; identify waste and redundancy; and ensure viable paths to oxygen self-sufficiency in LMICs. The UOC will act similarly to electric cooperatives, which aggregate supplies to meet electricity demand, ensuring every patient has access to oxygen, on demand, at the point of care, no matter where in the world they live.
Plan of Action
To steward and catalyze OaaU, USAID should leverage its global platform to convene funders, suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, health systems, financial partners, philanthropy, and NGOs and launch a call to action to mobilize resources and bring attention to medical oxygen inequality. USAID’s Bureau for Global Health, along with the its Private Sector Engagement Points of Contact, and the State Department’s Office of Global Partnerships should spearhead the UOC coalition. Using USAID’s Private Sector Engagement Strategy and EDGE fund as a model, USAID can serve as a connector, catalyzer, and lead implementer in reforming the global medical oxygen marketplace. The Bureau for Global Health should organize the initial summit, calls to action, and burgeoning UOC coalition because of its expertise and connections in the field. We anticipate that the UOC would require staff time and resources, which could be funded by a combination of private and philanthropic funding from UOC members in addition to some USAID resources.
To achieve the UOC vision, multiple sources of funding could be leveraged in addition to Congressional appropriation. In 2022, State Department and USAID funding for global health programs, through the Global Health Programs (GHP) account, which represents the bulk of global health assistance, totaled $9.8 billion, an increase of $634 million above the FY21 enacted level. In combination with USAID’s leading investments in The Global Fund, USAID could deploy existing authorities and funding from Development Innovation Ventures’ (DIV) and leverage Grand Challenge models like Saving Lives at Birth to create innovation incentive awards already authorized by Congress, or the newly announced EDGE Fund focused on flexible public-private sector partnerships to direct resources toward achieving equitable oxygen access for all. These transformative investments would also serve established USAID policy priorities like localization. UOC would work with USAID and the Every Breath Counts Initiative to reimagine this persistent problem by bringing essential players—health systems, oxygen suppliers, manufacturers and/or distributors, and financial partners—into a unified holistic approach to ensure reliable oxygen provision and sustainable infrastructure support.
Recommendation 1. USAID’s Bureau for Global Health should convene the Universal Oxygen Coalition Summit to issue an OaaU co-financing call to action and establish a global governing body.
The Bureau for Global Health should organize the summit, convene the UOC coalition, and issue calls to action to fund country pilots of OaaU. The UOC coalition should bring together LMIC governments; local, regional, and global private-sector medical oxygen providers; local service and maintenance companies; equipment manufacturers and distributors; health systems; private and development finance; philanthropy organizations; the global health NGO community; Ministries of Health; and in-country faith-based organizations.
Once fully established, the UOC would invite industry coalition members to join to ensure equal and fair representation across the medical oxygen delivery care continuum. Potential industry members include Air Liquide, Linde, Philips, CHART, Praxair, Gulf Cryo, Air Products, International Futures, AFROX, SAROS, and GCE. Public and multilateral institutions should include the World Bank, World Health Organization, UNICEF, USAID country missions and leaders from the Bureau for Global Health, and selected country Ministries of Health. Funders such as Rockefeller Foundation, Unitaid, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Clinton Health Access Initiative, and Wellcome Trust, as well as leading social enterprises and experts in the oxygen field such as Hewatele and PATH, should also be included.
UOC members would engage and interact with USAID through its Private Sector Engagement Points of Contact, which are within each regional and technical bureau. USAID should designate at least two points of contact from a regional and technical bureau, respectively, to lead engagement with UOC members and country-level partners. While dedicated funds to support the UOC and its management would be required in the long term either from Congress or private finance, USAID may be able to deploy staff from existing budgets to support the initial stand-up process of the coalition.
Progress and commitments already exist to launch the UOC, with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors planning to bring fiscal sponsorship as well as strategy and planning for the formation of the global coalition to the UOC with PATH providing additional strategic and technical functions for partners. The purpose of the UOC through its fiscal sponsor is to act as the global governing body by establishing global policy, standards, oversight controls, funding coordination, identifying waste & redundancy, setting priorities, acting as advisor and intermediary when needed to ensure LMIC paths to self-sufficiency are available. UOC would oversee and manage country selection, raising funding, and coordination with local Ministries of Health, funders, and private sector providers.
Other responsibilities of the UOC may include:
- Issue feasibility studies to assess technology gaps in target countries. This research would inform future challenges, contracts, prioritization, design, and focus.
- Advise LMICs on identifying barriers and knowing best next steps.
- Establish an official framework of best practices for OaaU that includes core metrics of success and replicable models.
The first UOC Summit will issue a call to action to make new, significant commitments from development banks, philanthropies, and aid agencies to co-finance OaaU pilot programs, build buy-in within target LMICs, and engage in market-shaping activities and infrastructure investments in the medical oxygen supply chain. The Summit could occur on the sidelines of the Global COVID-19 Summit or the United Nations General Assembly. Summit activities and outcomes should include:
- Announce the launch and secure financial commitments from public and private funds for piloting OaaU in at least one national context.
- Identify and prioritize criteria for selecting pilot locations (regions or nations) for OaaU and select the initial country(s) for holistic oxygen self-sufficiency investment.
- Create the UOC Board representing manufacturers, global health experts, LMIC leaders, funders, multilateral institutions, and health providers who are empowered to identify geographic areas most in need of oxygen investment, issue market-specific grants and open innovation competitions, and leverage pooled public and private funds.
- Research, prioritize, and select at least two models of OaaU within a national marketplace to focus attention of all stakeholders on fixing the oxygen marketplace.
Recommendation 2. The UOC should establish country prioritization based on need and readiness and direct raised funds toward pilot programs.
USAID should co-finance an OaaU pilot model through investments in domestic supply chain streamlining and leverage matched funds from development bank, private, and philanthropic dollars. This fund should be used to invest in the development of a holistic oxygen ecosystem starting in Tanzania and in Uttar Pradesh, India, so that these regions are prepared to deliver reliable oxygen supply, catalyzing broad demand, business activity, and economic development.
The objective is to deliver a replicable global reference model for streamlining the supply chain and logistics, eventually leading to equitable oxygen catering to the healthcare needs that can be rolled out in other LMICs and improve lives for the deprived. The above sites are prioritized based on their readiness and need as determined by the 2020 PATH Market Research Study supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We estimate that $495 million for the pilots in both nations would provide oxygen for 270 million people, which equates to less than $2 per person. The UOC should:
- Invest in local providers: This will generate economic development and high-paying jobs in-country and throughout the supply chain.
- Spur localized innovation and digital transformation: Foster locally driven innovation by in-country and regional systems integrators, especially in digital transformation of oxygen generation, distribution, and delivery. Solutions should include new digital tools for aggregation of supply and demand and real-time command and control to radically improve access to medical oxygen on demand.
- Create an in-country deployment coalition for each pilot country: Because oxygen marketplaces are unique to each context, having a market-based deployment coalition in each country that involves private, public, and social sector partners is critical to coordinating the deployment of resources and maintaining implementation efforts. The deployment coalition could be operated out of or supervised by a USAID Country Mission.
- Provide pilot model funding to enable Ministries of Health and the deployment coalition to streamline and fix supply chains.
- Issue calls to action for interested parties and stakeholders to submit plans to address both the immediate medical oxygen needs in the country of choice and the long-term infrastructure barriers. These plans could help inform strategy for deploying resources and making oxygen infrastructure investments.
This effort will result in a sustainable oxygen grid in LMICs to produce revenue via subscription and pay-per-use model, reducing the need for aid organization or donor procurement investment on an annual basis. To create the conditions for OaaU, the UOC will need to make a one-time investment to create infrastructure that can provide the volume of oxygen a country needs to become oxygen self-sufficient. This investment should be backed by the World Bank via volume usage guarantees similar to volume usage guarantees for electricity per country. The result will shift the paradigm from buying equipment to buying oxygen.
Recommendation 3. The UOC and partner agencies should launch the Oxygen Access Grand Challenge to invest in innovations to reduce costs, improve maintenance, and enhance supply chain competition in target countries.
We envision the creation of a replicable solution for a self-sustaining infrastructure that can then serve as a global reference model for how best to streamline the oxygen supply chain through improved infrastructure, digital transformation, and logistics coordination. Open innovation would be well-suited to priming this potential market for digital and infrastructure tools that do not yet exist. UOC should aim to catalyze a more inclusive, dynamic, and sustainable oxygen ecosystem of public- and private-sector stakeholders.
The Grand Challenge platform could leverage philanthropic and private sector resources and investment. However, we also recommend that USAID deploy some capital ($20 million over four years) for the prize purse focused on outcomes-based technologies that could be deployed in LMICs and new ideas from a diverse global pool of applicants. We recommend the Challenge focus on the creation of digital public goods that will be the digital “command and control” backbone of a OaaU in-country. This would allow a country’s government and healthcare system to know their own status of oxygen supply per a country grid and which clinic used how much oxygen in real time and bill accordingly. Such tools do not yet exist at affordable, accessible levels in LMICs. However, USAID and its UOC partners should scope and validate the challenge’s core criteria and problems, as they may differ depending on the target countries selected.
Activities to support the Challenge should include:
- Assessing technology and cost gaps in target partner countries in healthcare infrastructure, with a particular focus on supply chains and oxygen provision. This research would inform the Challenge design and focus.
- Creating partnerships with LMICs to implement promising innovations in pilots and secure advanced market commitments from healthcare ministries, the private sector, and multilateral or private financing to ensure viable pathways to scale for solutions.
- Establishing an official framework of best practices for OaaU that includes core metrics of success and replicable models that interested healthcare ministries could use to develop a system in their own nations.
USAID can play a catalytic role in spearheading the creation and sustainment of medical oxygen through a public utility model. Investing in new digital tools for aggregation of supply and demand and real-time command and control to radically improve access to medical oxygen on demand in LMICs can unlock better health outcomes and improve health system performance. By piloting the OaaU model, USAID can prove the sustainability and scalability of a solution that can be a global reference model for streamlining medical oxygen supply chain and logistics. USAID and its partners can begin to create sustained change and truly equitable oxygen access. Through enhancing existing public-private partnerships, USAID can also cement a resilient medical oxygen system better prepared for the next pandemic and better equipped to deliver improved health outcomes.
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The OaaU approach integrates and streamlines most aspects of oxygen delivery, just as integrated power grids grew into public utilities through government investment and public-private partnerships built on technological development to manage them. With an OaaU approach, investments would be made in oxygen digital grid design, build, interoperable connectivity across markets, staff training, demand forecasting and development of a longitudinal sustainable plan. Through this model, an increased number of oxygen suppliers would compete through auctions designed to drive down cost. Governments would receive a lower fixed price in exchange for offering a firm commitment to purchase a pre-established amount of oxygen, services, and equipment to provide oxygen over a long-time horizon. Financial partners guarantee the value of these commitments to reduce the risk that countries will default on their payments, seeking to encourage the increased competition that turns the wheels of this new mechanism. Providing a higher-quality, lower-cost means of obtaining medical oxygen would be a relief for LMICs. Additionally, we would anticipate the government to play a greater role in regulation and oversight which would provide price stability, affordability, and adequate supply for markets—just like how electricity is regulated.
First, oxygen is a complex product that can be generated by concentrators, cylinders, plants, and in liquid oxygen form. For a country to become oxygen self-sufficient, it needs all types of oxygen, and each country has its own unique combination of needs based on healthcare systems, population needs, and existing physical infrastructure. If a country has an excellent transportation system, then delivery of oxygen is the better choice. But if a country has a more rural population and no major highways, then delivery is not a feasible solution.
The oxygen market is competitive and consists of many manufacturers, each of which bring added variations to the way oxygen is delivered. While WHO-UNICEF published minimal technical specifications and guidance for oxygen therapy devices in 2019, there remains variation in how these devices are delivered and the type of data produced in the process. Additionally, oxygen delivery requires an entire system to ensure it safely reaches patients. In most cases, these systems are decentralized and independently run, which further contributes to service and performance variation. Due to layers of complexity, access to oxygen includes multiple challenges in availability, quality, affordability, management, supply, human resources capacity, and safety. National oversight through a digital oxygen utility infrastructure that requires the coordination and participation of the various oxygen delivery stakeholders would address oxygen access issues and enable country self-sustainment.
Given that oxygen provides areturn of US $50 per disability-adjusted life year, medical oxygen investment is a meaningful opportunity for development banks, foreign assistance agencies, and impact investors. The OaaU business model transformation will be a major step toward oxygen availability in the form of oxygen on-demand in LMICs. Reliable, affordable medical oxygen can strengthen the healthcare infrastructure and improve health outcomes. Recent estimates indicate every year about 120–156 million cases of acute lower respiratory infections occur globally in children under five, with approximately 1.4 million resulting in death. More than 95% of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries (Nair, 2013; Lui, 2012).
Unlike prior approaches, OaaU is a business model transformation from partial solutions to integrated solutions with all types of oxygen, just like the electricity sector transformed into an integrated grid of all types of electricity supply. From there, the medical facilities will buy oxygen, not equipment—just like you buy amounts of electricity, not a nuclear power plant.
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