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Better vaccines via drone

Speed read
  • Vaccine supply chains in low and middle income countries face numerous challenges.
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles are being developed for vaccine distribution.
  • Supercomputing models show that drones raised vaccine availability and saved costs over traditional land transport.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones) are old news. Heck, soon they’ll be delivering your pizza. But did you know these drones offer an inexpensive way to deliver vaccines?  

That’s what a new research collaboration between the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) points to. Improved vaccination rates and big savings for low- and middle-income regions of the world are on the way – thanks to drones.

<strong>By land or by air? </strong>Visualizations from the PSC HERMES simulations of (A) traditional multi-tiered land transport systems and (B) drones modeled in the Gaza province. Courtesy Leila A. Haidari.

Researchers expect the cost savings to come from the ability to deliver vaccines more quickly and cheaply than land-based methods limited by road conditions and the need for costly fuel and maintenance.

“Many low- and middle-income countries are struggling to get lifesaving vaccines to people to keep them from getting sick or dying from preventable diseases,” says Bruce Y. Lee, associate professor at the Bloomberg School and director of operations research at its International Vaccine Access Center.

So where are these drones dropping their vaccines? They are currently being tested for medical supply deliveries in exotic locales like rural Virginia, Bhutan, and Papua New Guinea. UNICEF is testing the feasibility of using them to transport lab samples in Malawi. And in Tanzania, there are efforts afoot to transport blood and essential medications.

For their study, Lee and his colleagues created a HERMES computer model to simulate a traditional land-based transportation system – a combination of trucks, motorbikes, and public transit – and compared it with an unmanned drone system for delivering vaccines as part of an immunization program.

Seattle-based non-governmental organization Village Reach helped provide data for the model. They varied characteristics such as geography, population, road conditions, and vaccine schedule in order to assess which conditions would most contribute to drones offering the biggest cost savings.

“You make all these vaccines, but they’re of no value if we don’t get them to the people who need them. So there is an urgent need to find new, cost-effective ways to do this.” ~Bruce Y. Lee.

In research published in Vaccine, the scientists found that using drones to get vaccines to their patients could improve vaccine availability – potentially immunizing 96 percent of the target population as compared to 94 percent using land-based transport – while producing significant savings: eight cents for every dose administered (roughly a 20 percent savings).

“When we're considering changes such as introducing drone delivery to a system as dynamic as a vaccine supply chain we might see unexpected consequences, not all of which are positive,” says Leila Haidari, public health applications manager at PSC and coauthor in the paper. “Computational modeling gives us the ability to assess the potential impacts of the change and inform our decision making.”

Read the original Johns Hopkins press release here.

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