The global health agency Unitaid and the charitable foundation Wellcome joined forces to launch an emergency taskforce here on Tuesday to secure oxygen supplies and technical support for the countries worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Half a million people, many of them treated for coronavirus, in the world’s low and middle-income countries require oxygen during their in-patient care, and hospitals running out of oxygen very often results in preventable deaths, Unitaid spokesperson Herve Verhoosel said at a press conference here on Tuesday.

Unitaid is a global health initiative that works with partners to prevent, diagnose and treat major diseases in low- and middle-income countries, with an emphasis on tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS and its deadly co-infections.

The newly created taskforce is supported by partners like the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the Global Fund, the World Bank, the Clinton Health Access Initiative and the international non-profit health organization PATH.

“Since the start of the pandemic, affordable and sustainable access to oxygen has been a growing challenge in low and middle-income countries, where COVID-19 has put a huge pressure on health systems,” the spokesperson said, adding that 25 countries currently are reporting surges in demand, the majority of them in Africa.

According to the spokesperson, the taskforce will need immediate funding of 90 million U.S. dollars for up to 20 low-income countries, and that figure is projected to grow to 1.6 billion U.S. dollars for the next 12 months.

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