Researchers have called into question the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of using drones to deliver lab and blood samples in West African countries as opposed to using motorcycles. Part of the report titled "Uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) versus motorcycles to deliver laboratory samples in west Africa: a comparative economic study" by The Lancet, an international family of health journals, argues that when factors such as range and durability are considered, in many cases motorcycles offer a cost-effective option for the delivery of lab samples in West African countries.

The researchers reached their conclusions by using theoretical cost-effectiveness estimates of routine and emergency transport of laboratory samples during Liberia's 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic.

"The average cost per sample transported under routine conditions was $0·65 (95% CI 0·01–2·85) with the motorcycle transport system and $0·82 (0·56–5·05) with UAS65 (table 2; figure 4). The cost-effectiveness planes in the appendix (pp 2,3) show the sensitivity analysis results of 10 000 Monte Carlo simulations of different UAS scenarios compared with motorcycles. Motorcycles dominated—ie, were more cost-effective than—UAS30 (left upper quadrant) under all scenarios that we modelled. The probability of UAS being cost-effective increased with increasing UAS ranges, lifespans over 1000 h, and prices less than $15 000 (appendix pp 16–18). The incremental cost-effectiveness ratios varied by scenario: −0·1 (–0·4 to −0·003) for UAS65, −0·03(–0·05 to −0·01) for UAS30, and −1·67 (–77·88 to −0·01) for UAS100."

Road networks and distribution of clinics in Liberia. Black squares indicate the county hospitals where the reference laboratories were located. Black dots indicate clinics.

Increase in the use of drones for medical deliveries across Africa

Over the past half a decade there has been a steady increase in the usage of drones to deliver medical supplies and samples across various African countries.

During April 2019, it was announced that Ghana's government had awarded a multimillion dollar deal to Zipline to make medical deliveries in the West African country. This was shortly followed in May 2019 by the South African National Blood Service, a non-profit organization that provides essential services around the provisioning of blood and blood products in South Africa, announcing that it had developed its own drones for the transportation of blood.

Rwanda was probably the first country in Africa to use drones for medical deliveries which were said to be capable of making up to 150 deliveries per day of life-saving blood to 21 transfusing facilities located in the western half of the country. Tanzania also partnered with Zipline to launch what they dubbed the world’s largest medical drone delivery service.

What has been curious and in some cases contentious is the cost associated with contracting companies to develop and manage these medical drone delivery solutions.

Drones should not be viewed as substitutes in healthcare deliveries

In Ghana for example, one of the opposition political parties criticized the $12,5 million deal between Zipline and the West African country's government arguing that the money could've rather been used for much needed basic services.

As such, the report by The Lancet is important in that it not only highlights what is more cost-effective between using drones or motorcycles for medical deliveries, but it also emphasises that drones should not be viewed as a complete substitute of other delivery methods in a country's healthcare system.

"Our simulations suggest that short-range UAS are less cost-effective than motorbikes for transportation of laboratory samples under most scenarios in Liberia; however, there is potential scope for longer-range UAS, especially if prices decrease and operational lifespans increase.There have been suggestions for using UAS as complements, rather than substitutes, for land-based transport systems.4 UAS could be deployed to cover hard-to-reach areas, while motorcycles and trucks would cover more proximal locations. This scenario would be highly dependent on the operational range of the UAS, the location of the UAS base stations, road density, and the location and number of remote clinics."

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