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A drone carrying vaccines arrives at Widjifake Health Center where health workers, Emmanuel and Fabrice, unload the package. (VillageReach photo by Henry Sempangi Sanyulye)

This week, residents of a remote province along the Congo River got several special deliveries of vaccines from a small fleet of drones, marking a first for the country and a milestone in strengthening its medical supply chain.

When the first of the fully autonomous drones landed in Widjifake, a remote village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) Equateur province, crowds gathered to applaud and cheer the novel arrival.

“The communities are fully engaged and excited. Maybe a little too excited,” said Olivier Defawe, who was overseeing the new operation as part of his role at VillageReach, a Seattle-based nonprofit. Such was the initial excitement that Defawe’s team needed help controlling the crowd.

But Defawe welcomed the enthusiasm. A huge part of the effort is making sure that locals, especially the villagers who are receiving the vaccines, are on board with the new technology.

In a little over two days, the drones delivered three months’ worth of vaccine supplies to three health clinics and vaccinated babies from seven families against polio. On the return trips, they hauled reports and lab samples for measles and yellow fever.

To implement the new delivery system, VillageReach collaborated with the DRC’s government, drone startup Swoop Aero, and Gavi, a public-private partnership backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that promotes vaccination efforts.

VillageReach President Emily Bancroft said the project isn’t just a chance to test new technology. The drones have to work better and cost less than other last-mile delivery options like motorcycles.

“The drone work doesn’t sit on its own. We are doing a large-scale supply chain improvement initiative with the government in rural, river-based, hard-to-reach provinces in DRC,” said Bancroft. VillageReach has been around for nearly two decades and specializes in helping governments solve healthcare challenges with ideas and technology borrowed from other industries.

Following the success of the initial flights, the organizations plan to continue fundraising and expanding the drone delivery network.

In some ways, vaccines are a great fit for drones. They’re small, so they can fit on board, and they need to be kept cold, so the delivery speed is important. One test flight reduced a 6-hour round trip delivery to 20 minutes. In the first week, the fleet of two drones has logged more than 300 miles daily.

Emmanuel, head nurse at Widjifake Health Center, and his staff store the vaccine delivery. (VillageReach Photo by Henry Sempangi Sanyulye)

This week’s flights came after extensive research into how the new technology might improve the nation’s healthcare infrastructure. VillageReach and Johns Hopkins looked at the use of drones in a study that was published in the journal Vaccine and found that costs could be reduced by 20 percent with faster delivery times.

Each drone only costs around $5,000, but Defawe said that this is a small part of the investment needed to make drones part of a robust delivery system, which also requires training programs, maintenance, operations teams and software.

Another drone startup, Zipline, began delivering vaccines in Ghana this past April and also runs a blood delivery services in Rwanda.

VillageReach chose Swoop Aero since its drone system can take off and land on the ground, whereas Zipline’s drones are designed to parachute in deliveries from overhead. Swoop Aero, an Australian startup, also worked with UNICEF to deliver vaccines by drone in Vanuatu, a country in the South Pacific Ocean.

Even in wealthy countries, drones are only just starting to be used for medical and commercial purposes. Amazon is nearing the official debut of its all-electric Prime Air drone, which will deliver packages under 5 pounds in record time. And a drone was recently used to deliver a kidney to a transplant patient in Maryland, a first for the U.S. healthcare industry.

In order to be effective, vaccines need to get to everybody, thus providing the “herd immunity” that is a community’s best defense against infectious diseases. But governments in low- and middle-income countries frequently can’t get to the most remote areas. If they can be deployed cheaply, drones could increase access to vaccines and other medications.

But even if health systems are able to solve the logistical and cost challenges associated with drone deliveries of vaccines, they still need the support of local residents. Vaccine fears have been a persistent challenge across the globe and new technologies add another layer of complexity. In the DRC, there have been numerous attacks against Ebola virus treatment centers since an outbreak began last year.

During the first week of demonstrations, Defawe noticed one woman, an elder named Mama Cinq, who refused to approach the drone.

“No, no. I’m afraid. This is scary,” she told Defawe. But later in the day, Defawe convinced her to come over and touch the drone. The crowd once again roared with applause.

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