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Drone pilot in Mozambique to transport COVID-19 and TB samples

In Mozambique, Swoop Aero worked collaboratively with Washington-based NGO VillageReach and Instituto Nacional de Saúde (INS) with funding from UK AID (now FCDO) to demonstrate the feasibility of drone technology to reduce the critical turnaround times of highly infectious COVID-19 and TB sputum samples, as well as increase the efficiency, management, and coordination of COVID-19 and TB sample collection and transportation.

The Key Health Challenges in Mozambique

There are an estimated 10.4 million new cases of TB globally every year. Mozambique is one of the most affected countries, with the third-highest rate of new cases worldwide; the country has a TB incidence of 552/100,000, with 3-4% of these cases diagnosed as multi-drug resistant TB.

In recent years, the TB epidemic in Mozambique has been exacerbated by the concurrent HIV epidemic, with an adult HIV prevalence of 12.6% in 2018 (about 2.2 million people). Mozambique is also one of the countries most affected by missing cases, that is cases of TB that go undiagnosed or unreported to the carrier. The reproduction rate of TB is approximately 4.6; one untreated case can infect another 15 people, thereby making the vaccine-preventable disease one of the most infectious types.

Transporting TB samples from the point of collection remains a necessity, as the majority of health facilities in Mozambique have no on-site laboratories. Rapid transportation remains a significant challenge due to poor transportation networks, weak infrastructure, and challenging geographical terrain. Rapid transportation is especially critical in diagnosing and treating highly infectious diseases like TB and COVID-19 so as to also prevent the further spread and contagion of the virus throughout regionalised and isolated communities across the country.

Pilot Operations

In 2018, VillageReach and the Mozambique National Institutes of Health (Instituto Nacional de Saúde de Moçambique or INS) launched stakeholder engagement to conduct the first medical drone delivery study in Mozambique. With funding from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), the study intended to generate evidence on the feasibility and safety of drone transportation for Tuberculosis (TB) sputum samples.

In 2019, Swoop Aero was selected by the Mozambique government as part of a globally competitive tender process. The Swoop Aero air logistics platform supported the rapid transportation of emergency and routine samples and test results under cold chain conditions, which was further managed through the integration of a temperature logger in the payload compartment to facilitate the continuous monitoring of the cold chain health products, samples, and results throughout the duration of the trip to the laboratory.

Successful Validation of the Technology

During March of 2020, Swoop Aero and VillageReach conducted drone flights near Maputo in the presence of the Mozambique Civil Aviation Authority and Amovant, the national drone association, which led to approvals for beyond visual-line-of sight (BVLOS) flights over populated areas.

Over 5 days in October 2020, 2 Swoop Aero drones conducted 23 drone flights transporting 300 lab samples (140 COVID-19 samples and 160 TB samples – a mix of positive and negative samples). A maximum of 33 COVID-19 samples and 10 TB samples could be transported per flight across 5 hard-to-reach district hospitals and 3 more accessible hospitals. 100,000 people directly benefited from daily drone pick-ups of COVID-19 samples and all other lab samples (for processing at central labs)

Reduction of human interaction in a public health emergency

The successful demonstration of air logistics within the Mozambican health supply chain has underpinned the importance of the Swoop Aero technology-based solution to minimize human-to-human transmission in the supply chain process, specifically the transportation of highly infectious samples and results. In the context of a global public health emergency, the minimization of human transmission is critical to mitigating the spread and contagion of vaccine-preventable viruses; minimizing the impact and pressure placed on hospital systems, healthcare professionals, and supply chains to protect the health and wellbeing of the population in times of health crises.

Plans for Network expansions

In Mozambique, Swoop Aero and VillageReach, with funding from Focusing Philanthropy, will enable the daily pick-up of COVID-19 and other lab samples from rural hospitals in five hard-to-reach districts in Inhambane Province. The drones will supply life-saving products, including the COVID-19 vaccine. All organizations are anticipating to scale up operations in a further 2 provinces as part of Phase 2 operations.

Further reading

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