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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.

That very same year, Swoop Aero—in collaboration with Washington-based NGO VillageReach and with funding from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Crown Philanthropies and the Patrick j. McGovern Foundation launched a pilot in the Equateur province. Swoop Aero aircraft 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.

During the pilot program the Swoop Aero’s two-way healthcare logistics network was deployed, 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 leads to more timely and consistent product deliveries, thereby contributing to the objectives laid out in the National Forum on Immunisation and Polio Eradication.

Overcoming Geographic Challenges

Following our successful program with UNICEF in Vanuatu, VillageReach sought our expertise to demonstrate how our aircraft 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.

 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 months’ 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 aircraft 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 operations 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.

“The integration of drones into DRC’s health supply chain is a significant step toward equitable access to health care for the country,” said The Honorable Minister of Health of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dr. Eteni Longondo. “The commencement of these flights means thousands of children will have increased access to immunization services. It also means that there is an additional mechanism in place for the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine distribution.”

The success of the pilot (Demonstration and Feasibility of Drones) helped secure ongoing funding, and we have since sustained phase 2 operations (Routine Use and Validation) to transform the delivery of healthcare in the DRC and proved the value of air logistics to bridge the gap in access to healthcare for last-mile and hard-to-reach communities.

Swoop Aero’s sustained air logistics operations in Equateur province have showcased the feasibility, utility and need for air logistics to bridge the gap in access to health, forged community trust and upskilled community members. The existing operations have delivered health products routinely and on-demand to 70 hard-to-reach health facilities, covering 22,000km2  and serving over half a million people—  representing the largest two-way aeromedical logistics network in the world. In October 2021, Swoop Aero had conducted 6,700+ operational flights, transported +80,000 vaccines, hired and trained six local staff, and supplied 25 health facilities directly and 70 indirectly. Since January 2021, Swoop Aero delivered HIV, multidrug-resistant TB, Ebola, COVID-19, yellow fever, measles and polio lab samples, returning results and medicines in emergencies, and immunised over 1500 children per month.

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