Merck takes part in test of medicine-delivery drones in Puerto Rico

Merck, Volans-I, Softbox and AT&T are working with Direct Relief to test the drone system, which will deliver medicines to remote areas of the island.

One of the medicine-delivery drones being tested

As the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico becomes clearer, one of the largest drugmakers in the country is participating in a test of a drone system designed to deliver medicines to areas affected by disasters.

Merck & Co. – together with Softbox Systems, Volans-I, AT&T and the nonprofit group Direct Relief – began piloting the test of emergency medical supply deliveries on the island last week. The drones carry medicines to which people often lose access in disasters and include temperature-controlled units that can carry products requiring refrigeration. Volans-i manufactures the long-range drones, while Softbox makes the packaging system for transporting cold-chain medications.

According to a widely publicized study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last month, between Sept. 20 and Dec. 31, 2017, Hurricane Maria caused approximately 4,645 deaths in Puerto Rico, based on the estimated mortality rate of 14.3 deaths per 1,000 people. Another study, released Tuesday by George Washington University, placed the death toll at 2,975. Approximately one-third of post-hurricane deaths were reportedly caused by delayed or prevented access to medical care, according to the NEJM study. Earlier this month, power was restored to nearly all of the island’s residents, nearly a year after the hurricane, and after thousands had remained without power for several months.

The drones were tested last week in challenging terrain in remote areas affected during the hurricane, beyond the line of site and extended deliveries to remote mountain villages cut off from road access and in some cases accessible only by helicopter. Upcoming tests will also have the drones flying over the sea.

Several companies have already tested drones for delivery of products, including Amazon. Meanwhile, the Red Cross used drones to assess damage form Hurricane Harvey in Houston last year. Another company, Zipline, has used drones to deliver blood, vaccines and medicines in Rwanda and is testing its system in California.

“In emergency response, we need to quickly get medicine to remote locations that may be otherwise reachable only by helicopter,” Direct Relief director of research and analysis Andrew Schroeder said in a statement. “As drone tecnology and systems for managing improve, we expect them to save lives in places where disasters have cut off access to critically needed healthcare.”

Photo: Merck, Direct Relief