Last week, at a rural spot in Ghana's southern-central Ashanti region, a launcher zinged as it whipped a drone carrying a small consignment of vaccines into the sky. The sound of the launch has become familiar in Mpanya, the site of one of medical delivery drone service Zipline's four Ghanaian "nests", and from which as many as 500 flights of the fully-autonomous aircraft can take off in a single day. But this particular drone carried a landmark payload: 250 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine - the maiden flight of the world's first partially drone-borne COVID-19 immunisation campaign.
In 34 minutes, the little red-winged "zip" appeared in the sky above Asuofua health center, more than 70 kilometres away and the vaccines packaged safely in a red insulated box, drifted to earth under a paper parachute. Within five hours, the 250 doses would find their mark in 250 arms, the first of 4,500 doses to be delivered in this way on the first day. For further information see the IDTechEx report on Drone Market and Industries 2021-2041.
Just over a week earlier, those vials had been among the 600,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses in a plane taking off at Mumbai airport, Accra-bound. When that plane touched down at Kotoka International Airport early on the 24 February, it became the first shipment of COVAX vaccines to land in Africa, in fact, to arrive anywhere outside of India.
For Ghana's delivery partners, Zipline and global logistics leader UPS, everything happened slowly and then all at once. Months of communication with the COVAX facility, of meticulous planning for a secure COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, were put into play in just over 12 hours. "We found out Tuesday afternoon that the vaccines would land Wednesday at 6 am," Zipline representatives told VaccinesWork. "We were with our partners at the Ghana Health Service when the shipment was confirmed, so we immediately began mobilising ground transport with UPS, and were on-site the following morning to help transfer the vaccines from the airport to the National Cold Room."
In Nigeria, UPS's regional head Ian Hood said "We were all extremely excited about it," he said. "We were on Zoom calls with our colleagues from UPS Ghana, UPS Healthcare and The UPS Foundation in the US, and from UPS in Dubai." UPS's sprawling global network has assisted the response to COVID-19 in a variety of ways, says Hood, including distributing PPE amid the scarcity of the early pandemic, and coordinating transport operations for vaccine clinical trials. When it came to gaming out the COVAX supply chain in Ghana", says Hood, "it was less a matter of scrambling to adapt than making sure the company deployed the assets it had already amassed: a wealth of expertise; established, efficient partnerships. "
The UPS Foundation, Zipline and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance first teamed up to deliver vaccines by drone across Ghana more than two years ago. For Gavi, the aim was to support Ghana's vision for the expansion and improvement its national routine immunisation programme, and by doing so create a platform that can benefit the wider health agenda. Since then, Zipline's fleet of fixed-wing flyers have delivered more than a million doses to rural healthcare centres, many of which can be tough to reach overland, or which struggle to ensure an unbroken cold chain. And now with the COVID-19 vaccine deliveries this is coming to bear fruit in terms of the broader health benefits.
Source and top image: Gavi~