Drones that deliver COVID-19 jabs? The future of India’s vaccine drive is nearly here

September 15, 2021, 2:04 PM UTC

India’s varied landscape of towering mountains, expansive deserts, and wetlands susceptible to flash floods has long been an obstacle course for authorities trying to reach citizens in remote areas. In the COVID era, officials are navigating that maze to deliver vaccines, and they’re up against a ticking clock: the government’s goal to vaccinate each of India’s 950 million adults by the end of 2021. 

The extraordinary task calls for an innovative solution—one India piloted last weekend.  

On Saturday afternoon, a dome-shaped white drone the size of a mini refrigerator took off from the Vikarabad parade ground in the southern state of Telangana. Dozens of onlookers applauded as the device climbed upward before zipping off to the east. Within seconds, it was out of sight. Minutes later, the drone landed three kilometers away on the grounds of a state-run community hospital. 

On its journey, the drone cradled a medical cold storage box packed with dry ice and special insulation to protect precious cargo: vaccines against measles, mumps, and rubella. It was the first shipment in a 28-day pilot program spearheaded by the World Economic Forum that, if successful, will create a drone network to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to India’s hardest-to-reach places. The project, called Medicine From the Sky, is a partnership between WEF, the state government of Telangana, Apollo Hospitals HealthNet Global, and the government think tank NITI Aayog. For the pilot program, three drone startups—TechEagle, SkyAir, and Marut—have offered their services for free.

If the shipments of vaccines prove successful, the program will expand to delivering other critical medicines and emergency blood supplies.

“This is the first time in the world, when a revolution is about to start, India will not be a follower but a leader,” India Minister for Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia said at the launch ceremony.

Courtesy of Marut Drones

The majority of India’s 1.4 billion people are served by roughly 30,000 government-run primary health care centers, but at least 5% to 10% of the centers are inaccessible to medical suppliers—and sometimes even patients—because of difficult terrain and weather hazards, said Suresh Munuswamy, head of technological innovations at the Public Health Foundation of India.

“It is a serious challenge in a pandemic where for the first time all people have to be vaccinated,” he said.

The majority of vaccines for diseases such as polio, diphtheria, and hepatitis are administered at birth—not to the adult population all at once like COVID-19 jabs. The need to administer two separate COVID-19 jabs to every recipient over several weeks is also a challenge for health care facilities without cold storage; they need smaller shipments of vaccines delivered more often, Munuswamy said.

Around 58% of India’s population have received a single dose of a COVID vaccine, and 18% are fully vaccinated, meaning India is far from its goal of inoculating every adult by year’s end. 

Munuswamy said the drones can help India get closer to its target, with the aerial vehicles able to cover 100 kilometers an hour, carrying payloads of 15 to 20 kilograms.

Under the pilot program, the drones first will carry commonly available vaccines such as jabs for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) in boxes weighing up to 10 kilograms over a distance of three kilometers with strict temperature monitoring to ensure the vaccines do not exceed eight degrees Celsius or fall below two degrees. The drones’ range and load will gradually increase, and toward the end of the 28-day pilot program, the payload will switch to COVID-19 vaccines, officials said. They’re excluding COVID jabs from the early trial to ensure none of the lifesaving doses are wasted in possible mishaps. 

After the pilot program, Medicine From the Sky wants to launch drone deliveries in each of India’s 29 states. 

“We are in fairly deep talks with four states for the program,” including the northeastern states of Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, and the western state of Gujarat, said Vignesh Santhanam, India lead for aerospace and drones at the World Economic Forum. 

The Medicine From the Sky program has been in the works for a year and a half, but it got a big boost on Aug. 25, when the government liberalized a stringent drone policy, slashing the number of permits needed to operate drones from 25 to five. 

“The drone policy has gone from something which was extremely hard for the industry to operate to something that is a lot more trust-based,” said Rahat Kulshreshtha, president of the Drone Federation of India.

During a deadly second wave of COVID-19 that struck India in late April, thousands of infected people struggled to access critical medicines and oxygen supplies, partly owing to transport problems.

Ultimately, nearly 90% of India’s medical supplies that go by road, especially to remote areas, will be replaced by drone deliveries, Amber Dubey, joint secretary in the Ministry of Civil Aviation, told Fortune.

India’s landmass is the largest in South Asia, and its climates range from blazing deserts to frigid mountains. If the drone program can succeed in the country, then it can likely be adopted elsewhere, officials said.

“It can be a template for not only other parts of the Asia region, but also for the world,” said Santhanam.

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