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Getting life-saving medicines from the sky

A medical drone on a test flight in Rwanda. Photo: UPS.

Kevin Etter, UPS, and Moz Siddiqui, Gavi

The Rwandan government will soon use drones to deliver life-saving blood supplies and rabies vaccines to health workers in the western half of the East African country.

The effort is part of an innovative collaboration between Zipline, a California-based robotics company; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; and UPS. The partnership could help save lives around the world.

In areas where maternal death due to postpartum hemorrhaging is a critical problem, and where there is a risk of contracting rabies, the blood, plasma and rabies vaccine that the Zipline-made drone will deliver in Rwanda later this summer is greatly needed.

But what this unique collaboration means for the future of the transportation of humanitarian relief and vital medical supplies — especially in remote, hard-to-reach locations — is where this first drone drop gets even more interesting.

UPS sat down with Kevin Etter, an executive at UPS who has been working at Gavi for two years on logistics projects, and Moz Siddiqui, the project lead at Gavi, to find out why sharing information and resources can save even more lives.

Instant drone delivery for commercial use is a hot topic. Why are these partners zeroing in on drone delivery in Rwanda?

Moz: Rwanda’s drone delivery operation has the potential to save thousands of lives over the next three years. The mothers in transfusion centres need blood supplies urgently. Gavi, as a leading public-private partnership in health, are always keen to explore how to save lives. When it comes using drones for vaccine delivery, this is also a learning opportunity. When someone is at risk of rabies, time is of the essence, getting the vaccine to the patient as soon as possible dramatically increases the likelihood of survival from this fatal disease. Rwanda has a strong health system and a strong health supply chain. It’s the ideal context, and a good base, for Gavi to really understand the new approach of using drone deliveries. If it works well in Rwanda, we can explore delivering supplies in even more remote places.

Kevin: In addition to providing funding for this project through the UPS Foundation, we’re engaged to learn from it. It can teach us a lot about how we can expand the use of drones to delivering supplies, including vaccines and other treatments. UPS has the global logistics expertise to explore just how we can leverage this technology in the future. And Gavi has the experience to bring together developing countries with funders and donors to increase access to immunization.

How did you connect with Zipline, the robotics arm of the operation?

Kevin: UPS knew that Zipline was an innovative drone technology company. Zipline was already talking to the government of Rwanda about using its drones for blood supply delivery there. We brought in Gavi for its global health expertise and to study the vaccines concept. We each contribute a unique part to this project.


Photo: UPS. 


When Zipline drops blood supplies to health workers in Rwanda, the world will be watching. What will you be looking for?

Moz: We’ll be able to learn from the blood delivery how drone technology and this process can also work with vaccine delivery, specifically rabies. Rabies is 100% fatal if left untreated, with many deaths occurring in poor, rural areas. With rabies, it can be difficult to predict when and where it’s needed. As time is of the essence, we’re interested in learning how effective the drone is in responding to a critical need, just in time.

Kevin: On the UPS side, we literally will be recording temperatures. Can the delivered supplies be maintained in the cold supply chain? Can they be stored efficiently at the required 2-8°C range? Is it cost-effective? We’re in it for the broader learning, too. We are curious and interested in different scenarios. Can we take what’s being done with drones and see the applications in even more remote locations under tougher conditions?

Moz: Right. In what ways can we use what we learn in Rwanda to bring vaccines to a place like the Democratic Republic of Congo? Facilities there are very difficult to reach and it being a very large country, the question is how it drones can be used as part of other efforts, such as boats, to reach communities in need. But it’s also the about speed of response, can drones be used to respond in emergency situations? That’s what we hope to learn from this exciting project.


Photo: UPS. 

Why is it so hard to get vaccines to people who need them?

Kevin: Maintaining the supply chain requires many moving parts and involves training of the health workers, the NGOs and community leaders on the ground. Are all of these people working collaboratively? Are there enough resources? This technology will complement the existing supply chain. These countries will still get to people by off-road vehicles, motorcycle and bicycle if they can. The drones are an additional mechanism. They can help target areas where resources are thin.

Moz: In isolated communities in rural populations, it is difficult for health workers to walk to these areas and vaccinate children. This could change that and lessen the burden on health workers, so that their valuable time is spent more effectively.

Kevin: It’s also about timing and temperature. When it comes to blood or something like a vaccine that has to be refrigerated, timing can mean the difference between life and death. We are testing how fast we can deliver the product, and if it falls well within the safe range of its refrigeration to ensure quality. We’ll be testing the efficacy and potency of the delivered product to make sure it complies with the international standard.


Two children in Rwanda wait for vaccination at a clinic. Photo: Gavi/Thomas Rippe.

How about the future? Where do you see this going?

Kevin: If this is a useful delivery mechanism for blood, it could be a useful delivery mechanism for vaccines. We’ll be figuring that out.

Moz: And we’ll also be asking if this something that countries want to take forward? Gavi, UPS and Zipline are pushing boundaries, trying to change the status quo and reach more people. Ultimately, it’s the countries that decide if this is a viable innovation. The countries are in the cockpit. If they want to participate, we can make it happen.

This blog was reposted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy. 

You can find out more about Gavi’s partnerships with private sector here

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