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

 

In Mozambique, Swoop Aero is working closely with Washington-based NGO VillageReach and Instituto Nacional de Saúde (INS), and with funding from UKAID (now FCDO) to demonstrate the feasibility of drone technology to reduce the critical turnaround times of highly infectious diseases, including 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 the 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. These approvals were a “first” for the country and demonstrated the exemplary safety record of the Swoop Aero technology-based platform.

Over five days in October 2020, two 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 five hard-to-reach district hospitals and three 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 the Swoop Aero integrated drone logistics platform within the Mozambican health supply chain has underpinned the importance of the Swoop Aero technology-based solution to minimise 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 minimisation of human transmission was critical to mitigating the spread and contagion of vaccine-preventable viruses; minimising 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.

In 2021, VilllageReach published the findings of Phase One operations. 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.

In Phase 2, which was relaunched in May 2022, Swoop Aero and VillageReach will scale up the network in the Maputo province and expand into two additional provinces, Sofala and Inhambane. Phase 2 operations support the emergency transportation of COVID-19 tests, samples, results and vaccines, as well as other highly infectious pathology samples in collaboration with the Mozambique National Institute of Health (INS) and Inhambane Province Health Department. They are focused on serving 5 hard to reach district hospitals in the initial phased scaling up of operations and will progressively scale up the network to service 7 facilities across the Sofala and Inhambane provinces.

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 organisations anticipate scaling up operations in a further two provinces as part of Phase 2 operations.

Focusing Philanthropy and its community of donors for this campaign provided the funding for Phase 2 of the program. INS, VillageReach, and health partners in Inhambane are seeking funding for the continuation and expansion in Inhambane and other areas.

As the progression of drone integration into the health care system in Mozambique is implemented, greater access to health care for Mozambicans becomes possible through better prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of infectious diseases and other ailments.

Further reading

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