DRC Minister of Health, Governor of Equateur and WHO Representative met with VillageReach and Swoop Aero prior to routine drone flights, October, 2020. Photo credit: VillageReach
VillageReach has been working with the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance on a phased approach to test and integrate drones into the immunization supply chain in Equateur province.
Between 2018 and 2019, during the first phase of the program, a National Drones Commission, hosted by the Ministry of Health, and a Provincial Drones Working Group, hosted by the Governor of Equateur, put governance mechanisms in place for cross-agency coordination.
The selection of Swoop Aero, a medical drone logistics partner, came via a global request for proposals in collaboration with the DRC Civil Aviation Authority.
During this phase, stakeholders were surveyed at the national, provincial and local community level about their perceptions and acceptability of drones.
Between July and August of 2019, Swoop Aero conducted 50 successful demonstration flights between the capital of Equateur and a rural health center (or 25 round trips of 80 km each). Two drones flew simultaneously over five days, covering 2000 km in the air and delivering 25 kg of medical products, primarily vaccines, plus essential medicines to five rural health centers, returning with laboratory samples and reports. It validated the assumption that drones provided significant timesavings compared to ground transport.
The National Drone Commission recommended expanding drone flights and phase two started in 2020, but it was delayed due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following community sensitizations and trainings of health facility staff in remote areas, routine drone flights started in late Dec-2020, performed by a local team of drone pilots and operators trained by Swoop Aero. As part of the plan, drone flights will take place from near the capital of Equateur to 25 remote health facilities, which in turn will serve neighboring health centers. 70 health facilities in total will be supplied with vaccines monthly, returning with HIV, COVID-19, multidrug resistant TB, polio, yellow fever and measles samples, and carrying test results, medicines, test kits and personal protective equipment (PPE) as needed. Phase two of the program in DRC will last through mid-to late 2021 and will include an in-depth performance and cost-effectiveness evaluation. It is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Patrick J. McGovern Foundation; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; and Crown Family Philanthropies.