Immunization programs in low and middle income countries (LMICs) face numerous challenges in getting life-saving vaccines to the people who need them. As unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology has progressed in recent years, potential use cases for UAVs have proliferated due to their ability to traverse difficult terrains, reduce labor, and replace fleets of vehicles that require costly maintenance.
Using a HERMES-generated simulation model, we performed sensitivity analyses to assess the impact of using an unmanned aerial system (UAS) for routine vaccine distribution under a range of circumstances reflecting variations in geography, population, road conditions, and vaccine schedules. We also identified the UAV payload and UAS costs necessary for a UAS to be favorable over a traditional multi-tiered land transport system (TMLTS).
Implementing the UAS in the baseline scenario improved vaccine availability (96% versus 94%) and produced logistics cost savings of $0.08 per dose administered as compared to the TMLTS. The UAS maintained cost savings in all sensitivity analyses, ranging from $0.05 to $0.21 per dose administered. The minimum UAV payloads necessary to achieve cost savings over the TMLTS, for the various vaccine schedules and UAS costs and lifetimes tested, were substantially smaller (up to 0.40L) than the currently assumed UAV payload of 1.5L. Similarly, the maximum UAS costs that could achieve savings over the TMLTS were greater than the currently assumed costs under realistic flight conditions.
Implementing a UAS could increase vaccine availability and decrease costs in a wide range of settings and circumstances if the drones are used frequently enough to overcome the capital costs of installing and maintaining the system. Our computational model showed that major drivers of costs savings from using UAS are road speed of traditional land vehicles, the number of people needing to be vaccinated, and the distance that needs to be traveled.