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Drone delivery of Covid vaccines in India: Reality soon or wishful thinking?

Drone delivery of Covid Vaccines
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With an aim to facilitate vaccine supply and distribution – through various channels and sub-channels of logistics spread across the country; And enhance inoculation numbers, Ministry of civil aviation and Directorate General of Civil aviation have both granted conditional exemption to Telangana government for experimental trials of drone delivery of Covid vaccines. Furthermore, it has also permitted the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) for conducting feasibility studies in collaboration with IIT Kanpur in this regard.

The permission stipulates delivery of vaccines within the Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) using drones. It seeks to put in place a mechanism for delivery of vaccines, thereby, strengthening and further consolidating number of beneficiaries, even in far-off places.

This development, first-of-its-kind, considering the vicious onslaught of the second wave of the contagion is quite significant. India being the world’s second largest populous country has been at the eye of the storm, of late. On one hand, it is being bombarded with the millions of caseloads everyday combined with mounting tolls and on the other hand, it is reeling under severe vaccine crunch – with poor infrastructure only aggravating it further – that can potentially derail its mammoth immunisation drive.

There is no iota of doubt that the drone delivery of Covid vaccines could be a game-changing proposition as it can provide a much-needed fillip to the government’s thrust to bring more people under the ambit of immunisation. Albeit, it’s easier said than done as there are a bunch of hurdles that must be crossed before we could envision a dramatic fightback against this seemingly invincible contagion.

Of course, vaccinating billions of people is not a cakewalk as it necessitates gigantic efforts both at the centre and state level. However, delivering vaccine aerially will ensure a multi-fold increase in accessibility and faster delivery across various supply and distribution channels and other remotely located and outreach centres in the far-flung areas. Until now, the government has wholly relied upon railways, road and air transport system for the transportation of vaccines which has its fair share of pros and cons. However, with the introduction of drones, not only will vaccination drive catch up but also it will help curb the spread of Covid.

The most notable example is Zipline, a drone delivery service, which is handling this crisis by far the best by delivering Covid jabs to remote places. Gavi, an international organization that aims to bridge the inequalities of vaccines the world over, reported Zipline and the Government of Ghana’s collaboration to help deliver the much-awaited COVAX vaccines (COVAX is a global initiative supported by the World Health Organization which works towards global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines).

Irrespective of all the advantages, there are some issues that might come in the way of the usage of drones for vaccine delivery. Among many challenges, maintaining requisite temperature of vaccine vials is going to be an uphill task, that too, at a certain altitude. How effectively operators will be able to fulfil this parameter, will require some form of technological sophistication.

Secondly, India is not a drone-friendly country as drone operators have to pay through their nose in case of operations and violations both. Flying drones legally in India comes up with lot of hassles and tardy processes of approvals with provision of penalties running up to Rs 5,00,000 against violators. All of it makes India an economically unviable place for drone operators.

Besides this, a pilot needs to shell out enormous cash to be an official licensee. Moreover, a drone compliant with benchmark industry standards along with insurance makes it all the more expensive for anybody to become a mandated and recognised drone pilot in India. In addition to this, the government and drone operators will have to reach an agreement on emergency airspace usage for vaccine transportation.

Some major disadvantages of drones include breach of privacy, the possibility of being hacked, inability to be operated in bad weather conditions and a dubious distinction of being a spying tool. Furthermore, given the vaccine’s importance in these trying times, any loss or damage could be detrimental and irreversible.  

Therefore, considering all these factors, India needs to do a proper analysis with the help of proper agencies before it starts drone delivery of Covid vaccines to understand the viability and feasibility of the idea. Under that pretext, the proposed induction will not see light of the day immediately as it may well take a year or beyond before it goes through the trial phase.

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