Africa's flying chemists

It’s the airborne delivery service that’s transformed healthcare provision in Ghana and Rwanda. And with medical drones about to take to the sky in Nigeria, Andrea Dijkstra discovers they may soon play a key role in the continent’s Covid vaccine rollout, too.

While many people might think companies like Amazon will be the first to start with drone delivery services, few realize the technology has already been in use in Africa for several years - and for a far greater purpose. 

Medical start-up Zipline has been using drones to deliver life-saving medicineand blood transfusions in Rwanda for four years and in Ghana for nearly two years.

And the US company is set to expand its drone-delivery service to Kaduna in Nigeria. 

The service will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from three distribution centres – each equipped with 30 drones – and will deliver to more than 1,000 health facilities serving millions of people across the populous Nigerian state. 

The Silicon Valley-based logistics company has also started to play a growing role in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Ghana, Zipline began delivering Covid-19 test samples collected from patients in more than 1,000 rural health facilities to labs in the country’s two largest cities, Accra and Kumasi.

The service allowed the government to monitor and respond to the spread of the disease in some of the country’s most remote and difficult-to-reach areas, and reduced testing time from days to hours in some cases. 

In Rwanda, Zipline worked with global health non-profit organisation Partners In Health to ensure that quarantined cancer patients, who were unable to travel to the hospital for care and consultation, could continue to receive their chemotherapy treatments during the height of lockdown. 

Meanwhile, in the US, Zipline launched the first long-distance emergency drone logistics operation for hospital pandemic response, transporting deliveries of personal protective equipment to frontline medical teams in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Recently, the start-up announced a partnership with a major manufacturer of Covid-19 vaccines to build an end-to-enddistribution system that will see the company distribute the vaccines in the countries where it operates.

‘Where you live shouldn’t determine whether or not you get a Covid-19 vaccine,’ said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo.

The drone company wants to help rural areas that have been hard hit by the coronavirus.

‘We can help health systems bypass infrastructure and supply chain challenges through instant delivery.’ 

The Covid-19 vaccine delivery service should help health facilities avoid the need for ultra-low-temperature freezers by receiving on-demand deliveries of the precise number of vaccines they require at any time, safely and compliantly within the required temperature profile.

‘We will build ultra-low freezers at all of our distribution centres. And we are developing special packaging that will help maintain safe temperatures in flight to allow the vaccine to be used within five hours,’ Justin Hamilton, Head of Global Communications and Public Affairs at Zipline told NewsAfrica.

Zipline declined to specify its vaccine partner but said it has built a system that can deliver ‘all leading Covid-19 vaccines.’ 

It was initially thought that the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech must be stored in extreme cold temperatures of -70C, requiring special freezers.But recently, both companies announced that tests have shown that their coronavirus vaccine can withstand warmer temperatures, between -25C to -15C, which are at levels commonly found in pharmaceutical freezers and refrigerators. 

‘This is good news for the world,’ Zipline’s Head of Communications said.

‘But we want to be in a position to deliver all vaccines at any temperature. They will still be a scarce commodity that needs to be distributed efficiently and effectively.’ 

A Pfizer spokeswoman said it supports Zipline’s efforts to expand access to vaccines and medicines to those in hard-to-reach geographies.

‘We share Zipline’s commitment to innovative solutions to ensure equity in the distribution of vaccines and medicines, she said, though she declined to specifically confirm a deal had been signed with Zipline.

Zipline expects to be ready to deliver Covid-19 vaccines in all the markets where it operates from next month.

The company’s fixed-wing, battery-powered drones navigate by GPS.

The unmanned aircrafts are able to carry 1.6 kg of medical supplies – about the weight of three pints of blood.

Through a very cleverly designed catapult-type system, the drone plane is accelerated to a 100km per hour (60mph) cruising speed in only 0.3 seconds. 

As take-off and landing are the most difficult stages of a flight, the drones don’t land on the designation but simply drop the supplies in an insulated cardboard box with a simple parachute, which afterwards can be thrown away.

Thanks to this system, clinics don’t need any infrastructure to sign up as a client or a distribution centre. 

Each aircraft can fly 160km(100 mile) roundtrip, in strong winds and rain, day or night, to make on-demand deliveries in 30 to 45 minutes on average.

A single distribution site can operate dozens of drones and supply an area of up to 20,000 square kilometres – or just under 8,000 square miles

Zipline says its drones have flown more than six million kilometres(3.5 million miles) and made nearly 400,000 deliveries in the last five years.

In Rwanda, the company’s drones transported a staggering 20 per cent of all the blood used in transfusions outside of Kigali, leading Zipline’s CEO, Keller Rinaudo, to describe the East African nation as a ‘role model’ for how the rest of the world’s health care systems may one day work.

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