Bismark Sarkodie had a situation on his hands. As the Municipal Director of Health Services for a rural district of Ghana, he had ordered an entire camp of 244 construction workers into quarantine when three of them tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Two weeks later the camp residents were desperate to get out, but Sarkodie couldn’t release them until he was sure that every resident was clear, and that meant re-testing the original patients. But on April 17, instead of driving the test swabs two hours to the capital, Accra, for analysis, he had them dropped off at a health facility one district over. Within a few minutes, they were winging their way to a testing facility via autonomous drone.
Two days later, the results came back via SMS: negative. The workers could be let out of quarantine. On any other day, Sarkodie says, he might have marveled at the fact that Ghana is the first nation in the world to use drone technology to test for COVID-19; instead he was just relieved that his district was once again clear of the disease. “Testing is the most important thing, and whatever it takes to make it faster, makes it better,” he says.
It may not seem like much, but Ghana is shaving hours and even days off the time it takes to get a COVID-19 test from suspected rural victim to urban laboratory with the help of delivery drones that, up until last week, were primarily used for transporting vital medical supplies in the opposite direction. Now, Zipline, an American health care logistics company, is turning its service around, flying samples from difficult-to-reach rural areas into the capital with its fleet of red and white drones.
It’s the first time that autonomous drones have been used to make regular long-range deliveries into densely populated urban areas, and paves the way for drone technology to play a new role in the fight against COVID-19. The company eventually plans to put its technology into use in the U.S., but says it is focused right now on the program in Ghana, according to Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo. “Using contactless drone delivery to transport COVID-19 test samples will allow the government to more quickly respond to the pandemic and help save lives.”
With nearly 70,000 tests conducted so far, Ghana has one of the highest testing rates in Africa. But unlike the United States, where swabs and the chemical reagent needed to complete the tests are in short supply, Ghana has a different kind of backlog: thousands of far-flung rural clinics, and only two places in the entire country where the swabs can be analysed. Until last week, all the tests had to be transported to the laboratories by road, a journey that can take up to six hours. Some remote clinics, loath to dispatch an ambulance for just one test, would wait a few days in order to collect enough samples to make the trip worthwhile, prolonging patients’ anxiety and delaying the contact tracing protocols necessary to stop the virus’s spread.