Getting Life-Saving Medicines . . . from a Drone

How global collaboration makes the impossible, possible.



Kevin Etter | UPS 

Moz Siddiqui | Gavi

The Rwandan government will soon use drones to deliver life-saving blood supplies and rabies vaccine 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.

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

Q: Instant drone delivery is a hot item in the news, usually around the idea of commercial use. Why are UPS, Gavi and Zipline 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 centers 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.

Q. And then there is Zipline, the robotics arm of the operation. We will be talking with Zipline’s CEO Keller Rinaudo on Longitudes tomorrow on the innovative use of technology. How did all three of you connect?

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.

Q: When Zipline drops blood supplies to health workers in Rwanda, the world will be watching. You and your teams will be in full lab mode. 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Kevin Etter is a Loaned Executive at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. He spent 32 years in positions at UPS that range from healthcare strategy to industrial engineering.

Moz Siddiqui is Manager for Global Operational Partnerships with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and leads on strengthening lower-income health systems by partnering with the private sector.

Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.

Tweet me: #HumanitarianRelief solutions come from #collaboration. And #drones. @Zipline @Gavi @UPS

KEYWORDS: Technology, Philanthropy, drones, vaccines, GAVI, Zipline, UPS, Humanitarian Relief, Innovation

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