Health Care

Deploying drones to fight Zika, future disease outbreaks

The U.S. Agency for International Development has awarded $30 million to private companies, universities and researchers to develop innovations that will address the current Zika outbreak — and prepare for the next global disease outbreak. Ideas include deploying drones to deliver medical supplies and ferry test samples from remote areas.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has awarded $30 million to private companies, universities and researchers to develop innovations that will address the current Zika outbreak — and prepare for the next global disease outbreak. Ideas include deploying drones to deliver medical supplies and ferry test samples from remote areas. AP

In the fight against Zika and future disease outbreaks, aerial drones might help by delivering medical supplies to remote areas and ferrying back lab samples for testing, or by dropping squadrons of sterile mosquitoes over an affected area to halt spread of a virus.

Those are among the ideas selected by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, to receive $3.3 million in funding for testing and development. Other possible innovations, many of them currently being tested overseas, include mining data to forecast future outbreaks and harnessing the collective power of mobile phones to improve disease surveillance, according to Wednesday’s announcement.

None of the ideas are currently being put to use in Florida, where health officials on Wednesday reported six new mosquito-borne infections in Miami-Dade, including five cases requiring epidemiological investigations to determine the source of exposure. In total, Florida has reported 1,014 Zika infections this year, with 172 mosquito-borne infections and 837 travel-related cases, including 104 pregnant women.

Many of the innovations funded by USAID could eventually be used in the United States, said Wendy Taylor, director of the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact at the federal agency.

“These are certainly innovations of global importance,” she said

Altogether USAID has awarded $30 million to private companies, universities and researchers to develop innovations that will address the current Zika outbreak — and prepare for the next global disease outbreak, Taylor said.

Ideas range from mosquito control to disease surveillance and diagnostic test improvements. All were submitted as part of USAID’s “Grand Challenge to Combat Zika and Future Threats,” an open call for ideas to prevent, detect and respond to future disease outbreaks.

The World Health Organization has declared Zika an international public health emergency. The virus, spread primarily through mosquito bites, is linked to serious birth defects in babies of mothers who were infected while pregnant. First detected in the Americas last Spring, Zika has now spread to 33 countries in the region.

The contest attracted 900 ideas, with 26 selected, including development of an environmentally friendly pesticide at Johns Hopkins University and production of low-cost sandals treated with mosquito repellent by the Ifakara Research Institute in Tanzania.

“None of these are silver bullets,” Taylor said. “None of these alone are going to stop introduction and spread of all diseases. What we need to do is start thinking about how are we investing in a whole suite of tools that really arm us for the different types of diseases that come along.”

Ideas are currently being tested in Madagascar, where a Michigan-based aerospace company named Vayu is experimenting with drone deliveries, and in Brazil, where a Belgian company is merging mobile phone and Zika incidence data to monitor the disease.

Taylor said USAID recognized the need for new ideas to handle public health threats during the 2014 ebola outbreak in West Africa, which eventually made its way to Dallas and New York City, affecting four people, one of whom died.

None of these are silver bullets. ... What we need to do is start thinking about how we are investing in a whole suite of tools.

Wendy Taylor, U.S. Agency for International Development

People infected with Ebola were showing up in clinics in remote parts of West Africa, Taylor said, but their blood and other samples were being tested at a centrally located lab that required days of travel by boat or car — a delay that led to the idea for using drones to deliver medical supplies and ferry specimens.

“Those are precious days lost when you’re waiting for diagnosis, waiting for treatment and trying to stop the spread of disease,” Taylor said.

Still, it can take years for some ideas to fully develop. Of the innovations USAID funded for Ebola response, Taylor said, about half are in use today.

Zika cases reported in Florida as of Oct. 12

County

Number of Cases

Alachua

10

Bay

3

Brevard

15

Broward**

120

Charlotte

1

Citrus

2

Clay

5

Collier

7

Duval

9

Escambia

3

Flagler

2

Hernando

4

Highlands

1

Hillsborough

25

Lake

3

Lee

12

Leon

2

Manatee

4

Marion

3

Martin

2

Miami-Dade**

237

Monroe

5

Nassau

1

Okaloosa

3

Okeechobee

1

Orange

86

Osceola

30

Palm Beach**

38

Pasco

8

Pinellas**

18

Polk

27

Santa Rosa

2

Sarasota

3

Seminole

22

St. Johns

4

St. Lucie

6

Volusia

9

Total cases not involving pregnant women

733

Undetermined

5

Cases involving pregnant women regardless of symptoms*

104

* Counties of pregnant women not disclosed

** Does not include local infections

Source: Florida Department of Health

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