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September 25th 2020, Melbourne, Australia: Swoop Aero, the drone-powered health logistics company, is returning to Africa amid the global pandemic to launch life-saving operations in Equateur, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Together with their NGO partner, VillageReach, the team will start community sensitization and training activities, in preparation for the significant expansion of medical drone operations in the Equateur province. The network will deliver medical supplies to 35 health centres, focusing in particular on vaccine deliveries with the aim of improving access to medical supplies.
The Australian team will be arriving in DRC just weeks after another team returned to Malawi, where autonomous drones have been integrated into the health supply chain in two districts, Nsanje and Chikwawa, to deliver medical supplies to a population of almost 1 million people. These Southern Malawi districts have struggled to maintain consistent and reliable medical deliveries. Swoop Aero has been able to solve this problem. Increased trust in the service and the continued use of the communications systems between the hospitals and health centres has allowed for vast expansion around the districts, which was accelerated throughout the current COVID-19 outbreak. The Australian Swoop Aero team returned to Malawi to support their in-country Malawian colleagues to sustain and further expand operations. The service has successfully delivered medical supplies, including vaccines, PPE, to approx. 11,000 people per month. At least one life-changing emergency delivery takes place every week, which carries supplies such as rabies vaccines or oxytocin. Doctor M. from the Trinity Hospital (East Bank) highlights ”Swoop Aero has given us total support in preventing unnecessary deaths that could have happened if there was no immediate way of sending emergency drugs.” The infrastructure was deployed with funding from the UK government (Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office) and UNICEF Malawi and together with the College of Medicine, the Malawian Department of Civil Aviation and Malawi Ministry of Health and Population. Dr Likaka, Director Digital Health Department Ministry of Health and Population stressed that “Drones enable faster delivery of medical supplies. The current pandemic only serves to accentuate the need for this”.
In August 2019, the government of DRC, in partnership with VillageReach and Swoop Aero, commenced demonstration flights of vaccine deliveries in Equateur province as part of the next-generation supply chain program. This confirmed the high-impact potential for integrating drones into the public health supply chain in Equateur and serving under-reached communities with vaccines and essential medicines. The success of this led to planning these longer-term operations.
Expansion was due to start in March 2020 with funding from the Gates Foundation, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, and Crown Family Philanthropies Foundation. That same month the Australian Federal Government imposed an international travel ban on all Australians to mitigate the transmission rates of the virus within Australia, delaying further operations in the region. The complete shutdown of national borders and refraining from
international travel to curb the anticipated surge of COVID-19 transmission rates severely impacted global health organizations, such as Swoop Aero, who are focused on reducing the emergent spike of infectious diseases. This has threatened to undermine further the positive strides made in the realm of preventable viruses, such as tuberculosis (TB), measles, polio, and Ebola.
Following the successful acquisition of international travel exemption waivers for the Australian Swoop Aero team, will finally see Eric Peck and his team travel to DRC to assist with the roll-out of training and education activities in the Equateur province. The lockdown in Victoria has significantly impacted the capacity of organizations’ to run everyday operations in an effort to combat COVID19, despite their intention and ability to support the global pandemic response efforts.
“In times such as these, it is important to lead from the front. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an extremely difficult period for everyone and has magnified the importance of quality health systems and primary healthcare. Since its founding, Swoop Aero has sought to transform global health for the better and we have not let the pandemic quash our mission to assist the DRC Ministry of Health to curb the remergent spike in infectious diseases and strengthen the local health supply chain through the integration of sustainable medical drone logistics”. It has been a long and protracted road to get to this point, but it is all worth it to see the impact and value our service generates in countries like DRC, said Eric Peck, CEO and co-founder of Swoop Aero.
Josh Tepper, CTO and co-founder of Swoop Aero said “The service we are deploying is a full platform, to provide the complete technology infrastructure to enable drone logistics. The platform is designed and manufactured in Melbourne and is one of a kind in the world. We have proven it is working in the most challenging places in the world. In DRC, for example, large parts of the network will solely rely on satellite only communications.”
Before starting operations, Swoop Aero and VillageReach have worked closely over the past 14 months to develop an integrated training and educational platform, which will be used to equip provincial and local healthcare professionals with the tools necessary to operate and optimize the medical drone logistics network. Swoop Aero’s experience in Malawi has demonstrated the success of this comprehensive training platform, where more than 70 healthcare professionals have been trained to interact with the aircraft to send, receive and request medical supplies. In addition, the organization has employed and trained 6 Malawian staff to operate, manage and pilot the network, as Swoop Aero has a commitment to building high tech local jobs everywhere they go. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, these trained Malawian team members enabled the service to operate unimpeded despite the international team members being constrained to return to Australia. Moreover, the training and long term employment of local community members has reinforced the cornerstone of sustainable practice; the community are given the tools and experience to control their own health supply chain and are provided a long term, scalable solution to the issue of inequality of access to healthcare.
Dr. Archimede Makaya, Provincial Coordinator, DRC (VillageReach) affirmed, “The community remains a fundamental pillar of the organizations’ project design. We want to ensure that the community is well prepared and educated about the technology and how it can help improve the health system before the aircraft flying overhead. We have collectively witnessed how drones can improve the health outcomes of communities in Malawi, and we now seek to replicate the results in DRC. We are very excited that we are all now finally able to travel to the country and reconvene our much-anticipated community sensitization, education and training activities.”
Swoop Aero transforms the way the world moves essential supplies by making access to the sky seamless. Founded in 2017, this Australian born and bred company is transforming access to healthcare for millions across the world by deploying two-way drone networks. Their infrastructure enables safe, reliable and sustainable provision of essential health supplies. From the UN to USAid and the Gates Foundation, they are trusted to create value by sustainably transforming health supply chains. Swoop Aero’s goal is to enable better access to health for 100 million people by 2025. In the process, they are bound to transform global health for the better.
VillageReach is a nonprofit organization that transforms health care delivery to reach everyone, so that each person has the health care needed to thrive. They develop solutions that improve equity and access to primary health care. This includes making sure products are available when and where they are needed and primary health care services are delivered to the most under-reached. One of their core capacities, radical collaboration with governments, the private sector and other partners, strengthen their ability to scale and sustain these solutions.