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June 30, 2020

Medical Drone Delivery of COVID-19 and TB Samples – A Promising Solution for Mozambique

The National Health Institute of Mozambique (INS), VillageReach, and Swoop Aero announced today the results of its phase one study exploring drones for transport of Tuberculosis (TB) and COVID-19 laboratory samples, which was funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). The results confirm that the safety, feasibility, and stakeholder acceptance of drones for the transport of medical products are promising and represent an important step towards an introduction of drones into the national health care system.

“We believe that by introducing innovations such as drones into our transportation network, we can efficiently address the health needs of communities in hard-to-reach areas, while providing a cost-effective solution that can quickly scale,” says Sofia Viegas, National Director of Public Health Laboratories at INS. “Emergencies like the pandemic reinforce the need for fast diagnosis of highly contagious diseases, and we believe that drone integration into the health system, as an additional means of transport, will be of great value.”

In 2018, VillageReach launched the Drones for Health program through a collaboration with INS, representing the Ministry of Health. With funding from FCDO, the program comes at a critical time when laboratory sample processing and capacity must expand to meet demand. INS broadened the study focus beyond TB to include COVID-19 and trained health workers on how to collect the samples.

The objectives of the phase one study were to generate evidence on the potential benefits and costs of drone transportation to facilitate the introduction of drones into the TB and COVID-19 sample transport network in Mozambique. The study validated the assumption that drone transportation does not compromise the quality of the lab samples when compared to transportation by land.  The study also showed acceptance of drone transportation among national, provincial, and local stakeholders.

The results of the quality analyses performed showed similarities for air and land transport, with a 100% agreement for TB samples analyzed and 84% agreement for SARS-CoV-2 samples. Future studies, at the national level, will allow for validation of drone use in real-world conditions, with the potential to increase confidence for future adoption of drones for medical deliveries in Mozambique.

“COVID-19 testing and the need for efficient laboratory sample transport has compounded the importance of investigating drone technology to strengthen laboratory networks”, says Ruth Bechtel, Mozambique Country Director, VillageReach. “Drones are a viable solution for Mozambique to reduce distances between health facilities and laboratories, especially in hard-to-reach areas, helping to build more equitable health systems and improve quality of health care for all.”

VillageReach has worked in Mozambique for twenty years, in close collaboration with the Ministry of Health and INS across various initiatives aimed at strengthening health systems. For its technical partner, VillageReach sought the expertise of Swoop Aero, with whom it is also collaborating on similar drone initiatives in healthcare in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi.

“The completion of this first phase of drone integration during the pandemic reinforces the important role that air logistics plays in the health system,” says Eric Peck, CEO at Swoop Aero. “Especially during times where every second counts, shaving hours off the transport of lab samples while ensuring it arrives at the lab uncompromised can lead to positive outcomes on the other end. Early detection of highly-contagious diseases helps communities to protect themselves, especially through a health crisis, such as COVID-19.”

Evidence generated by these study flights in Maputo will contribute to the foundation necessary to scale up routine drone transport as part of the laboratory network and overall supply chain. Once funding is secured, phase two of the drone study in another province will prioritize 5 hard-to-reach district hospitals to pick up lab samples and deliver essential medicines and vaccines.

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About INS

INS participates in improving the wellbeing of the Mozambican people by generating and promoting the adoption of scientific and technological solutions to solve the main health changes in Mozambique.

About VillageReach

VillageReach transforms health care delivery to reach everyone so that each person has the health care needed to thrive. We 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. Radical collaboration with governments, the private sector, and other partners strengthens our ability to scale and sustain these solutions.

About FCDO

UK’s partnership with the Government of Mozambique spans many decades, supporting efforts for socio-economic development and humanitarian assistance to the people of Mozambique. The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) unites development and diplomacy in one new department to bring together the best of Britain’s international efforts. FCDO has worked in partnership with INS to support and strengthen the responsiveness of the health system in Mozambique and increase access, quality, and equitable use of reproductive and maternal health services. In that capacity, FCDO has collaborated with VillageReach and INS to bring technological innovation to the health sector by testing the use of drones to transport TB and COVID-19 laboratory samples, supporting the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria and other Official Development Assistance programs financed by FCDO in Mozambique.

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