Ministry of Health, VillageReach, Swoop Aero and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance introduce innovative mode of delivery to ensure communities are reached with life-saving vaccines.
A collaboration including the Ministry of Health, VillageReach and Swoop Aero, and with funding by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, has vaccinated the first children receiving vaccines by drone in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These successful flights, which took place in the northwestern province of Équateur, are part of a broader strategy to reach remote populations with vaccines and other medicines called Nouvelle Génération des Chaînes d'Approvisionnement, or NGCA. The drone demonstrations highlight continued innovation to improve health, in the midst of the recent public health emergency declaration by the World Health Organization due to an Ebola outbreak.
A fleet of drones transported vaccines, syringes and medicines to a hard-to-reach Congolese village called Widjifake with 6,500 residents, where children were vaccinated. Each drone flight to Widjifake safely delivered vaccines–maintained at the right temperature for efficacy–in around 20 minutes, expediting what is typically a three-hour journey by road. Today the drones completed four round-trip test flights of 80 kilometers each in one day. This is in addition to 17 round-trip flights, reaching approximately 2,000 kilometers, flown over recent weeks.
Swoop Aero's drones have vertical take-off and landing capability, which allows them to land directly at the health center in Widjifake and also return to the Provincial Health Division of Equateur with lab samples, data collection forms, and requests for medicines needed. The take-off site in Mbandaka is the first drone port in DRC approved by the Civil Aviation Authority. .
"One of the key focus areas of the National Health Development Plan is to reduce maternal and infant mortality. The Ministry of Health welcomes this innovation that facilitates the transport of vaccines and other essential health products through drones to overcome accessibility challenges in Equateur's hard-to-reach communities. This will bring essential health care closer to the population in order to improve universal health coverage," said Yuma Ramazani, Secretary General for Health, DRC.
Drones represent an additional approach for reaching the last mile — bridging the gap between hard-to-reach populations and the vital health products they need. These flights will give the Government of DRC a clearer picture of how drones could be integrated into the existing health system. The costs and benefits compared to traditional delivery systems will be detailed as well as the changes needed to operationalize this method of transport.
"Rivers, forests and difficult roads can be the first barriers to accessing basic health services. If people overcome these geographical barriers, they may find another: a health center without vaccines or essential medicines. In partnership with the Ministry of Health, VillageReach is attempting to overcome these barriers head-on, prioritizing the accessibility and quality of basic health services for people living in remote villages across the country. We believe drones have significant potential to create the responsive, people-centered supply chains that will ensure access to health care for under-reached populations," said Emily Bancroft, CEO of VillageReach.
"The coverage rate for routine immunization in DRC is extremely low and the Ministry of Health has declared a health emergency to work to improve it. Coincidently, DRC is experiencing an unprecedented series of deadly disease outbreaks, which are all symptoms of poor coverage, weak health systems, lack of infrastructure and broader health issues in the country," said Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. "Drones have the potential to help reach the unreached and ensure that more children in the DRC are protected against vaccine-preventable diseases. Integrated within a strong and sustainable routine immunization program, these innovations can help tackle the current outbreaks that the country is experiencing," he added.
As part of this effort, VillageReach tapped the expertise of Swoop Aero to demonstrate how drones could surpass some of the geographic challenges in the province, including crossing the Congo River and its tributaries.
"We are proud to be part of this game-changing project in DRC following our success working with the Ministry of Health and Unicef in Vanuatu. Our team brings together the knowledge and expertise needed to be able to operate a safe, reliable, and cost-effective air transport solution using drones. We're excited to be able to demonstrate our expertise to the DRC Ministry of Health, and share our vision for equitable access to healthcare," said Eric Peck, CEO of Swoop Aero.
Based on the initial demonstration flights, VillageReach and its partners see the potential to improve access to vaccines and other health products, increasing equity to people least served by the existing system. The next step is to secure continued funding to assess the costs and benefits of using this technology and developing the operational model needed to provide and sustain routine transport of vaccines, medicines and other medical commodities to remote areas of Equateur.
VillageReach is a nonprofit organization that works with governments to solve health care delivery challenges in low-resource communities. Our programs focus on increasing access to quality health care at the last mile, or the point at which services are delivered. We develop and implement new ideas and approaches to ensure vaccines and medicines are available and increase the capacity of health workers and ensure they have access to data to improve health. Our work improves the lives of more than 30 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Swoop Aero is a venture capital-backed company that is bringing autonomous air transport to everyday life by revolutionising access to healthcare for everyone, everywhere. Founded by former Air Force pilot Eric Peck and mechatronics engineer Josh Tepper in 2017; Swoop Aero is one of a handful of teams globally that hold the knowledge of how to build and operate an air transport network using drones. Their operations team includes former air force pilots, current commercial pilots and leading engineers, meaning they are ideally positioned to support in-need communities in locations that have previously been the hardest places to reach in the world, such as the DRC.
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is a public-private partnership committed to saving children's lives and protecting people's health by increasing equitable use of vaccines in lower-income countries. The Vaccine Alliance brings together developing country and donor governments, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank, the vaccine industry, technical agencies, civil society, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other private sector partners. Gavi uses innovative finance mechanisms to secure sustainable funding and adequate supply of quality vaccines. Since 2000, Gavi has contributed to the immunisation of 700 million children and the prevention of 10 million future deaths. Learn more at www.gavi.org and connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.