COVID-19 vaccines zipline

Drones for good: delivering COVID-19 vaccines to remote locations in Africa

The following piece about using drones for delivering COVID-19 vaccines is a guest post by Katarzyna Rybarczyk.

It’s no secret that drones are hugely valuable in responding to humanitarian crises. Following disasters such as floods, earthquakes, or wildfires, they’ve made it easier to locate survivors and quickly deliver critical medical supplies to remote areas. 

Drones have a history of responding to disease outbreaks too. They’ve helped confirm Ebola outbreaks in Uganda, and given twelve million people in Rwanda access to anti-malaria medicines, blood products, and emergency vaccines for diseases such as rabies. Now, drones are being used to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to remote areas across the African continent. 

Drones delivering COVID-19 vaccines in Africa

Many African villages are hard to reach. Zipline, which has been working since 2014 to get medical supplies to hard-to-reach villages, is one of the drone delivery companies making deliveries to those hard-to-reach communities. Where a journey would typically take several days, drones can reach the destination within a few hours. Moreover, these operations do not put anyone’s life at risk. 

“Millions of people across the world die each year because they can’t get the medicine they need when they need it,” said Keller Rinaudo, CEO of Zipline. These words have proven especially true since the coronavirus pandemic began.  

In June 2020, Zipline turned its attention back to its home country of the U.S. to use drones to help with medical deliveries related to coronavirus in North Carolina. But with vaccines largely rolled out in the U.S., Zipline is returning to developing countries. In March 2021, Zipline started delivering COVID-10 vaccines in Ghana, the first country to receive vaccines supplied by the COVAX initiative. The COVAX initiative was designed in cooperation with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to provide people in developing countries with access to COVID-19 vaccines. Within just a few days after the program started, drones distributed 11,000 vaccines. 

By the end of the year, the program could deliver more than 2.5 million doses of vaccines across the continent. 

Pros and cons of delivering COVID-19 vaccines via drones

The pros of using drones for vaccine delivery

COVID-19 vaccines
Image courtesy of Zipline

Drones can significantly speed up vaccination distribution in developing countries where access to health care facilities is limited. Thanks to drones, those who live in remote areas or who otherwise struggle to get access to the vaccine can receive it. Drones can overcome the logistical challenges of physically delivering vaccines to rural areas. 

The cons of using drones for vaccine delivery

The main problem with using drones for the deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines is maintaining a low temperature during transportation. So far, only AstraZeneca vaccines can be safely distributed using drones, as they can be kept at a normal refrigeration temperature of between 2 to 8°C. That’s much higher than the storage temperature of other globally-approved vaccines. 

Vaccines are very vulnerable to temperature changes, so cautious storing and transporting are necessary for them to be effective. For now, the vaccine supplies that can actually be delivered by drones are limited. 

In addition, African drone regulations are currently in the development stage. Hence, governments enjoy a great degree of autonomy, and there is no harmonized regulatory framework addressing the development and the use of drones in humanitarian operations. Consequently, organizing drone vaccine deliveries and later coordinating the operations can be challenging. 

Using drones for humanitarian response

Around sixty per cent of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa lives in rural regions where access to vaccines is limited, and many die of preventable diseases. Drones have been an essential part of delivering humanitarian aid to areas that are difficult to get to and regions ravaged by armed conflict.

Drones have been playing a critical role in stopping the spread of coronavirus. Thanks to them, Africa has been getting closer to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and achieving healthcare equity. 

Overall, drones have the potential to solve problems. Yet, to use their full potential, African countries need to coordinate the use of drone technology for humanitarian response, including for vaccine deliveries, better. 

About the author: 

Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a Political Correspondent for Immigration News, a media platform affiliated with Immigration Advice Service. Through her articles, she aims to raise awareness about security threats worldwide and the challenges facing migrants.

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