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DRC’s First Medical Drone Vaccination Program

Effective and efficient immunisation supply chains are an essential component of a quality healthcare system. However, a lack of reliable infrastructure remains a pervasive barrier to achieving immunisation coverage in low-resource environments.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one in every seven children dies of a vaccine-preventable disease before the age of five.

In 2020, UNICEF reported that only 35% of children are fully vaccinated before their first birthday. In addition, UNICEF estimated that 86,905 children in the DRC had not received the oral polio vaccine and 74,860 did not get a dose of the tetanus-diphtheria-whooping cough-hepatitis B-Hib3 vaccine.

Helping To Reach the Unreached

In July 2019, President Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo convened the National Forum on Immunisation and Polio Eradication. Speaking at the July 2019 event, the President made a powerful and public commitment to immunisation as a pillar of universal health coverage.

In July-August 2019, Swoop Aero—in collaboration with Washington-based NGO VillageReach and with funding from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance in the Equateur province—conducted a series of successful demonstration flights, using our Kookaburra medical drones. The drones delivered basic vaccines, syringes, medicines, and other supplies with the support of officials from the national, provincial, and local level of governance and community members in Equateur province.

The trial program tested Swoop Aero’s two-way healthcare logistics network, enabling the immunisation of children in remote health facilities, and the return of pathology samples for testing. The flights successfully demonstrated to all stakeholders that Swoop Aero’s drone logistics platform can lead to more timely and consistent product deliveries, thereby contributing to the objectives laid out in the National Forum on Immunisation and Polio Eradication.

The success of the project has secured ongoing funding, and we have begun sustained operations to revolutionise the delivery of healthcare in the DRC.

Overcoming Geographic Challenges

Following our successful program with UNICEF in Vanuatu, VillageReach sought our expertise to demonstrate how our Kookaburra could surpass some of the geographic, transportation, and infrastructure challenges in the province. These include crossing the Congo River and its tributaries, overcoming the difficulty of forests and rougher roads and maintaining communication with the aircraft in extremely remote and sparsely populated areas.

Testing the DRC’s First Medical Drone Vaccination Program

Our fleet of aircraft transported vaccines, syringes and medicines to a hard-to-reach Congolese village where children were vaccinated. Each flight safely delivered medical supplies—maintained at the right temperature—in around 20 minutes, expediting what is typically a three-hour journey by road. We transported a range of medical commodities between the EPI vaccine distribution centre in Mbandaka, capital of Equateur, and a rural health centre in Bikoro health zone, called Widjifake

The World’s First Two-Way Drone Healthcare Logistics

Over the initial five‐day period, 50 flights to and from Widjifake were conducted, amounting to 20 hours of flight time. The flights covered over 2,000 kilometres and delivered two month’s worth of vaccines and critical medical supplies for four health centres nestled deep in the equatorial forest, returning with time-sensitive blood samples for testing.

With vertical take-off and landing capabilities as well as conducting simultaneous flying operations, we demonstrated Swoop Aero’s system-to-scale operations to a number of health centres and to decrease turnaround and delivery times.

Our Kookaburra medical drones landed directly at the health centre in Widjifake and returned to the Provincial Health Division of Equateur with lab samples, data collection forms, and requests for medicines needed. The take-off site in Mbandaka was the first drone port in DRC, and central Africa, to be approved by a Civil Aviation Authorities

Our Work in the DRC Continues

Swoop Aero’s successful flights are part of a broader strategy to reach remote populations with vaccines and other medicines called Nouvelle Génération des Chaînes d’Approvisionnement, or NGCA. Our flights bridge the gap between hard-to-reach populations and the vital health products they need. Stay posted for our updates as we work with our partners in the DRC to transform the movement of healthcare supplies.

Building on the success of Phase One operations, Swoop Aero and VillageReach will continue to integrate the Swoop Aero Kookaburra platform into the routine immunisation supply chain for 25 remote health centres distributed across the Equateur province. Swoop Aero will scale-up the medical drone logistics platform to decrease transport time for immunisation products to remote communities.

Swoop Aero and VillageReach will also train Ministry of Health staff and local community members to integrate drones into the health supply chain.

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