ATLANTA - When Dikembe Mutombo visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo 3 weeks ago, he says doctors at the Kinshasa hospital he founded back in 2007 warned him the country could be hit hard by a third wave of COVID-19 infections, this one driven by the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.
The former Atlanta Hawks great turned humanitarian knows the DRC is vulnerable to another outbreak.
According to the World Health Organization, just 0.1% of the Congolese population has received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
"We are living with hope, that this thing will not get worse, as we've seen in India and South Africa and other places," Mutombo says. "We're praying a lot."
Distributing the COVID vaccine in Africa's second largest country has been challenging.
"Some of the places, you can only get there by airplane," he says. 'There is no road, and there is no water navigation."
The Australian air logistics company Swoop Aero is using drones to airlift vaccines from staging areas in the DRC to remote providers, teaming up with Alpharetta-based KORE Wireless, where Romil Bahl is the CEO.
"These drones, the latest generations, can carry a load of about 6 kilos," Bahl says. "So, that's about 6.6. pounds, give or take. That's about 50 vials, or 250 vaccines, per flight."
The drones carry icepacks to keep the vaccine cool.
With few cell towers in remote areas of the DRC, Bahl says KORE is working to make sure the drones have the constant internet connectivity they need to stay in the air.
"You need to have, for a truly redundant, where, if one of these aircraft, one of these drones is flying somewhere and loses connection, you can't have that, right," Bahl says. "So, we have seamless redundancy, from satellite and wireless."
What medical commodities are the drones carrying?
The drones can also carry pathology samples, test results, vitamins, HIV early diagnostic kits and antiretroviral medicines and birth control.
Bahl says Swoop Aero has 24 drone aircraft in Malawi, and another 17 in the DRC.
Dikembe Mutombo says he has urge family members and friends to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
He says the vaccine has never been more needed than it is right now.
"For our community to be safe, I have to be vaccinated and you have to be vaccinated, so that we can keep our community going," he says.
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