Logistics chain for the distribution of COVID vaccines to the other side of the world

Monday, April 19, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how fragile we are in the face of health contingencies and has made it clear that inequality between countries is very noticeable, leaving most of the population vulnerable.

As the pandemic went through its different stages, humanity had to face unimaginable challenges. Today, innovation and technological advances have created the vaccine to be able to stop the pandemic, which leaves the new challenge of the distribution of all vaccines for the population.

There are countries that, due to their infrastructure, technological advances and organization, allow them to reach an equitable distribution for their population. But on the other side of the coin we have vulnerable areas that do not have the infrastructure to guarantee optimal application of the vaccine. A specific case is the African continent.

Therefore, technological advances in logistics and distribution entered the scene to provide the tools for the distribution of vaccines and one of them is the use of drones.

Drones provide a potential avenue to ensure that everyone, no matter where they live, has access to high-quality healthcare. Africa has been a world leader in the field of drones with the first nationwide drone delivery program launched in Rwanda in 2016 and the world’s first drone delivery of a COVID vaccine that took place in Ghana during March of this year, showing the rest of the world the social and economic value that this technology can provide.

Africa despite being a lagging continent in many issues, today it is leaving us lessons to apply in the distribution of the vaccine using drones since drones provide a potential way to guarantee that everyone, regardless of where they live, has access to high-quality medical care. The challenge is to move from pilot projects to larger-scale operations that are financially sustainable.

Despite the excellent proposal and the pilot tests that were carried out in March of this year, many unanswered questions remain about how to design a successful drone program, where technology can best be applied and how to measure the results on a larger scale.

The World Economic Forum developed a report that provides a framework for evaluating these issues that are essential to making the most of this technological revolution. The document focuses on the African context, but many of the lessons are universally applicable:


Adapt the current economy with the new delivery scheme through drones

Some of the biggest challenges identified relate to the need to assess the opportunity that drones provide on a larger scale. The small pilot projects were a good way to learn initially, but we must adapt the political and economic context of the countries to make this a reality.

The question is no longer whether the technology is ready, but how to find sustainable business models for health care delivery with drones.

The needs of the present moment are too urgent and we must look at how we can shape emerging technologies to meet the needs of all people no matter where they live.


Creation of the infrastructure for drones

A key lesson from what is implemented in Africa is that drones can best be used as emergency infrastructure when they already serve as routine infrastructure.

In 2020, Zipline delivered more than 1 million doses of vaccines for other diseases, significantly increasing their rate of administration in response to limitations in access to health care caused by pandemic restrictions.

Ghana then turned to Zipline in March 2021 to begin distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to rural and ex-urban health facilities. Within 3 days, Zipline had distributed its entire initial allocation of 11,000 vaccine doses, representing 13% of the total vaccines administered in Ghana in that period.


Share data on the use of drones

There is also a need for a more open exchange of data on the use of drones. At this time, there is little publicly available information on the economics of drone delivery or how health outcomes are affected. While there are many understandable reasons why organizations are hesitant to provide quantitative information about their systems, ranging from governments’ concerns about national data sovereignty to the competitive concerns of companies without this data, it is difficult for officials. Governments or health officials assess the risks and benefits of using drones in the supply chain.

The public and private sectors must work together to plan what data will be collected when a program starts and what information they will commit to disclose and what information will remain confidential.


Do larger-scale projects

Little by little after the implementation in Africa, we see how other regions seek to replicate the success of distribution through drones. In India, it has worked with states such as Telangana and the central government on its Medicine From the Sky project. India is incubating its own ecosystem of business and policy and hopes to launch trials of drone-delivered vaccines in the coming months.

Japan is experimenting with new business models, as Zipline’s strategic operating partnership with Toyota Tsusho Corporation in Japan will provide the tools to replicate the drone distribution project. Also, Israel recently conducted one of the largest tests of simultaneous drone flights under an unmanned traffic system with the aim of creating a national drone delivery network that will include medical products. The United States has also started the delivery of drone medical supplies with UPS flying drones at the WakeMed campus in Raleigh.


Sharing airspace

The biggest barrier to creating such operations around the world continues to be the regulation of airspace. Civil aviation authorities (CAA) face a difficult challenge balancing the safety of existing flight operations and people on the ground while enabling new types of operations.


The COVID-19 pandemic has increased interest in the use of drones for medical supply chains. Although no technology can be a miracle solution, we must seek all avenues that improve equity in access to health and social welfare goods. Be it in Africa, rural America or poor urban communities. We must not wait until the next humanitarian crisis knocks on the door to provide solutions to the problems that may arise.