This story originally appeared on Gavi’s website. Below is an excerpt.
The first deliveries of up to 2.5 million doses of COVAX vaccines by autonomous drone began last week in Ghana.
On the morning of 2 March in Mpanya, 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, that metallic whoosh, has become as familiar as a clock-chime 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. Government officials and health care and frontline workers who had assembled at the drop-site to be vaccinated squinted upwards. The drone slowed, briefly dipped altitude and disgorged its consignment. Packaged safely in a red insulated box, 25 glass vials twirled neatly 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.
Just over a week earlier, those vials had nestled among the 600,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses in the belly of 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 – a milestone moment for a logistical operation of historic scale and complexity.
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 galvanised and 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.”