Unitaid announced Tuesday it had struck deals with two of the world's main medical oxygen producers to boost access to badly-needed supplies in poor countries fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.
The international organisation, which works on innovations to prevent, diagnose and treat major diseases in poorer countries, said it had signed agreements with Air Liquide and Linde.
Oxygen is vital in saving the lives of hospitalised Covid-19 patients, but the crisis has seen drastic shortages around the world.
"This is the first time such an agreement has been made to help facilitate equitable access to oxygen, an essential, life-saving medicine," said Unitaid executive director Philippe Duneton.
"We hope that other oxygen suppliers will now follow suit and come to the table. There is a real opportunity to change the course of history -- both for the Covid-19 pandemic, and for other areas where medical oxygen is so vital but has been often lacking."
The global supply of oxygen was already constrained prior to the pandemic for treating illnesses like pneumonia -- which kills some 2.5 million people annually.
But Covid-19 has significantly exacerbated the problem.
The pandemic has seen desperate shortages in countries like India and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, queues outside hospitals in Venezuela, price speculation in Peru and a black market in Brazil.
Latest estimates suggest that around one million critically-ill Covid-19 patients in low- and middle-income countries need 2.2 million oxygen cylinders -- 15.1 million cubic metres -- a day, Unitaid spokesman Herve Verhoosel told reporters in Geneva.
He said "concerning surges" had been reported in several countries in Africa, South America and southeast Asia.
Unitaid is co-leading the therapeutics pillar of the World Health Organization's Access to Covid Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) programme -- a globally-pooled hunt for coronavirus vaccines, diagnostics and treatments.
Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, the WHO's ACT-A special envoy, said: "Without a much-improved supply of oxygen we will see the global numbers of people dying from Covid rising even faster.
"These pioneering oxygen agreements are urgently needed to save lives."
The novel coronavirus has killed more than 3.8 million people and at least 176 million people have tested positive since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP.
Unitaid said it was trying to overcome obstacles such as unstable funding pledges and infrastructure gaps which were limiting the availability of bottles of medical oxygen.
Unitaid and its partners are trying to mobilise resources to finance the storage of medical oxygen, and said $400 million was urgently needed.