How drones delivering COVID-19 jabs will help take India's vaccination drive to all corners of the country

The unmanned aerial vehicles will aid in providing the vaccines in a timely manner to very hard-to-reach areas

FP Staff October 05, 2021 11:17:14 IST
How drones delivering COVID-19 jabs will help take India's vaccination drive to all corners of the country

A drone was used on Monday to deliver vaccine from Bishnupur district hospital to Karang island in Loktak lake in Manipur. ANI

India's health ministry launched a new initiative, the Indian Council of Medical Research’s (ICMR) vaccine delivery model — Drone Response and Outreach in North East (i-Drone).

Officials reported on Monday that the delivery model is to make sure that life-saving COVID-19 vaccines reach everyone, which is in line with the government's commitment to ‘Antyodaya' in health — making healthcare accessible to the last citizen of the country.

Let’s see how this new initiative will help expand India's COVID-19 vaccination programme.

i-Drone initiative

Under this new plan, for the first time, a 'Make in India’ drone was used in South Asia to transport COVID-19 vaccine over an aerial distance of 15 km in 12-15 minutes from the Bishnupur district hospital to Loktak lake, Karang island in Manipur for administration at a primary health centre.

The vaccines were taken to a primary health centre on the island where 10 beneficiaries received the first dose and eight got the second shot.

According to Union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya, the drone has a capacity of 900 vaccine doses and would be a ‘gamechanger’ in the healthcare sector.

Thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Union health minister said, "Under his leadership, the nation is progressing at a great pace. Today is a historic day, which showed us how technology is making life easier and bringing social change."

Currently, the drone-based delivery project has been granted permission for implementation in Manipur and Nagaland, as well as the Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The ICMR conducted an initial study in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur to test the capacity of drones to carry and transfer vaccines safely.

The study was conducted in Manipur, Nagaland and Andaman and Nicobar. These studies provided promising results on the basis of which the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and other regulatory authorities have granted permission to fly drones beyond the Visual Line Of Sight.

The ICMR’s vaccine drone, however, is not the first example of such flight in India.

Last month Union Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia launched a pilot project named 'Medicines from the Sky' at Vikarabad in Telangana, under which drugs and vaccines were delivered to 16 PHC using drones.

"Over the last three weeks, more than 70 UAV flights took off carrying COVID-19 vaccines and medicines to the primary health care centres in Telangana. Every day there are four to five flights,” Suresh Munuswamy, a senior researcher at the Public Health Foundation of India, who is associated with the Telangana project was quoted as telling Deccan Herald.

Benefits of using drones

India has some very hard-to-reach terrains and drones would be helpful in providing medicines and vaccines, resulting in an expansion of the vaccination drive.

The majority of India’s 1.4 billion people are served by roughly 30,000 government-run primary health care centers, but at least five percent to 10 percent of the centres are inaccessible to medical suppliers — and sometimes even patients — because of difficult terrain and weather hazards.

Suresh Munuswamy, speaking to Fortune, had said that the drones would help India get closer to its target, with the aerial vehicles being able to cover 100 kilometres an hour, carrying payloads of 15 to 20 kilograms.

If all goes well, the 90 percent of medical supplies that go by road would be replaced by drone delivery, as per Amber Dubey, joint secretary in the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

Speaking of the last-mile delivery capabilities of drones, Mandaviya said: "We can use drones to deliver life-saving medicines and collect blood samples. This technology can also be used in critical situations. It may prove a game changer in addressing the challenges in healthcare delivery, particularly health supplies in difficult areas."
"Incorporating such drone technologies into the national programmes would help deliver other vaccines and medical supplies as quickly as possible," he added.

As of date, India has delivered 91 crore COVID-19 vaccine doses. With that figure, 70 percent of India's adult population has been administered the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 25 per cent of the population has been administered both the doses.

And testing and vaccine delivery isn’t the only benefits of using drones in the pandemic.

Authorities in India have also used the technology as a monitoring tool. Last year, when the nation was hit by the deadly second wave, authorities in some parts of the country used drones to keep an eye on crowds.

Drone use across the world

An unmanned aerial vehicle was first used in China, the epicentre of the pandemic, to monitor fever in large gatherings using thermal images besides keeping a hawk’s eye over crowded places.

Zipline, a drone delivery service, has partnered with the government of Ghana to help deliver the much-anticipated COVAX vaccines (COVAX is a global initiative supported by the World Health Organization).

Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo, in an interview in June 2021, said that the company had delivered at least 2.6 million COVID-19 vaccine doses across the country and planned to deliver over 2.4 million more, with a particular focus on remote and roadless areas, by the end of the year.

In August, the United States launched its first COVID-19 vaccine drone delivery programme.

UPS Inc was roped in for the project, which is being spearheaded by Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist. As per the plan, the drones will deliver the vaccines from the main medical center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to one of the health system’s family medicine practices.

A UNICEF report stated that so far 18 countries have deployed drones for delivery and transportation purposes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of them did it as a part of experimentation and tests, while others maintained their regular drone delivery operations. Three countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, namely Rwanda, Ghana and Malawi reported the use of drones to deliver regular medical commodities, COVID-19 supplies and medical samples since the beginning of the pandemic.

While India lauds its efforts, let's see how long it will be till drone delivery of vaccines becomes the norm.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date:

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