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COVID-19 & innovations in the distribution of health products in Asia

March 2020

COVID-19 has disrupted the movement of health products to people. What can we learn from innovations that scaled in mainland China, Taiwan, and South Korea?


COVID-19 has posed unprecedented challenges in the distribution of health products to those in need.

In places where medications are available, patients often must travel to collect medicine amidst bans on public transportation. Travel restrictions intended to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 have constrained the distribution of essential medicines. Across the globe, rapidly scalable innovations in distribution are urgently needed to ensure high-quality, essential products are available, accessible, and affordable for all.



Identify promising approaches that emerged in areas affected early by COVID-19.

A systematic review of articles published in four leading newspapers each in mainland China, Taiwan, and South Korea in the first three months of 2020 was conducted. Using a combination of search terms on distribution and supply of health products (including medicine, face mask, and diagnostics) and specific products related to quarantine, 1843 newspaper articles were identified in the three areas. Of those, 25 articles described innovations that improved distribution of health products during the crisis of COVID-19.



1) Distributing essential health products and food to individuals in quarantine District public health officials in South Korea have been delivering quarantine kits that contain consumer health products for personal protection and self-screening of symptoms, food, water, personal hygiene products, accessories and encouraging messages. Supplies included enough for two weeks of quarantine. The related quarantine mobile app also allowed communication with health officials to request additional supplies if the need arose during this period.

2) Ensuring safe supply of masks to the general public Governments in Taiwan and South Korea responded to the demand for face masks by mass purchasing quality face masks produced from local manufacturers. To ensure equal access to face masks by all individuals, these governments centralized the sale of face masks and rationalized the distribution through local pharmacies, convenience stores, and other governmental subsidiaries. Several innovations were developed to distribute pre-allocated stocks to their residents.

3) Mobile app and a hotline for medication refills Hospitals developed mobile apps to enable patients to refill ongoing prescriptions and make an appointment for pick-ups at designated areas outside the hospital. One hospital established a specific hotline to speed up the process of obtaining prescriptions prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, which provided a drive-through service for medication pick-up. Such services have since been extended to additional hospitals in the area.

4) Scale and integration of telemedicine and medication delivery under public insurance schemes In late February, the Wuhan Medical Insurance Bureau announced a policy change to include coverage of telemedical services to the general population, including low-income families and certain disadvantaged populations. In addition, the mobile platform integrated a package of services including the ability to obtain prescriptions, make online payments, and have the prescribed medicine delivered. During the period of COVID-19 control, online medical consultation fees were waived by providers, and patients were only charged for prescription fees for medications not covered by their insurance. Other provinces in mainland China also reported the implementation of telemedicine and its coverage under the regional health insurance plan.

5) Note: Public-private partnerships appear critical to the success of many innovations found Strong government leadership combined with private sector partnerships appeared to play an important role in the prompt scale of many innovations found. The implementation of technology–based innovations was made possible in these settings in part due to government interventions to stabilize the supply of highly sought after health products, effective systems for data collection and sharing across the public and private sectors, expansion of financing schemes, and new operational partnerships.

"Governments at all levels should think creatively about the use of financing, policy, data, and partnerships with the private sector to quickly scale responses commensurate with the need."

Yuen Wai Hung & Mara Hansen Staples, Stanford Social Innovation Review



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