DroneDeploying unmanned drones in low and middle-income countries could save money and increase vaccination rates, according to new research conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center.

Many low- and middle-income countries struggle to deliver lifesaving vaccines to sick people who are fighting preventable diseases.

Bruce Y. Lee, director of operations at the International Vaccine Access Center at the Bloomberg School says “[We] make all these vaccines but they’re of no value if we don’t get them to the people who need them. So there is an urgent need to find new, cost-effective ways to do this.”

Currently, vaccines such as hepatitis B, tetanus, measles and rotavirus are typically transported by road through two to four storing sites before they reach clinics where the doses are finally administered to patients. The majority of vaccines require refrigeration until they are used or else they will spoil.

In addition, non-vaccine costs of routine immunization are expected to rise between 2010 and 2020, mostly derived from supply chain logistics.

In the meantime, unmanned drones have proliferated. They can traverse all land and topography, decrease labor costs and substitute the need for vehicle transportation. They have been heavily used for surveillance and in humanitarian aid delivery.

A study conducted at Johns Hopkins University found that utilizing drones to transport vaccines to their final destination could slightly increase the rate of immunization, immunizing 96 percent of the target population as compared to 94 percent using land-based transport. This simultaneously produced significant savings, eight cents for every dose administered (roughly 20 percent savings).

“Assuming the drones are reliable, are capable of making the necessary trips and have properly trained operators, they could be a less expensive means of transporting vaccines, especially in remote areas,” says Lee. He adds, “They could particularly be valuable for urgent orders.”

An initiative led by the United Parcel Service Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, has raised $800,000 grant to support the launch of a zip line drone project in Rwanda that will commence later this year. The government of Rwanda will use zip line drones to make 150 life-saving blood deliveries per day to 21 transfusing facilities in western part of the country.

According to Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, “It is a totally different way to deliver vaccines to remote communities and we are extremely interested to learn if UAVs can provide a safe, effective way to make vaccines available for some of the hardest-to-reach children.”

The Rwanda drone network has been initially focused on delivering blood supplies, but plans to expand to include vaccines and treatments for HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

In rural Virginia, Bhutan and Papua New Guinea, drones are currently being tested for medical supply deliveries. UNICEF is also testing their viability of use in Malawi and in Tanzania.

Sarah Poff

Photo: Pixabay