- Quest Diagnostics is working with retail giant Walmart and aeronautics company DroneUp to deliver at-home COVID-19 tests by unmanned aerial vehicles.
- The pilot program will use drones to deliver self-collection kits to people who live near a Walmart store in Las Vegas. The partners see the same-day, no-cost delivery service as a way to assess the broader applicability of drones to healthcare.
- The drone delivery service is part of a wave of consumer-focused testing initiatives, including drive-thru collaborations between Walmart and diagnostic rivals Quest and LabCorp.
Timely results are important to the coronavirus testing effort. People need to know if they are infected so they understand whether they should quarantine. Yet, individuals with COVID-19-like symptoms may not feel up to driving to a testing center and could risk infecting people when they do. Delivering tests by priority mail can help to eliminate those problems, but longer than expected shipping times can cause delays.
Quest, Walmart and DroneUp see drones as a way to get COVID-19 test kits to people sooner.
People living in single-family homes within one mile of the store can order a test online and receive the kit via drone on the same day. The drone will drop the kit on the recipient's driveway, front sidewalk or backyard "depending on where there are cars and trees."
The system will survey the delivery area and address in real time before offering drone delivery. The collaborators said the assessment will ensure "minimal" failed deliveries but they could happen due to "unanticipated physical barriers, power lines, trees, cars, or weather."
Once a test is delivered, the process is the same as for other self-collection kits. The recipient uses a swab to collect a sample and ships it to Quest for analysis using a prepaid shipping envelope. Quest will provide results via its online portal and app.
The partners are yet to discuss plans to expand beyond the single site in Las Vegas. Seventy percent of the U.S. population reportedly live within five miles of a Walmart, suggesting a significant number of people may be accessible by drone from one of its stores. However, obstacles may prevent drone delivery in parts of the country. The pilot is happening in a low-rise residential district.
News of the drone delivery service comes one week after Quest said its consumer-initiated testing business is selling a COVID-19 kit through 500 Walmart drive-thru pharmacy locations. Quest is also selling the test online.
LabCorp, Quest's main rival, teamed up with Walmart early in the pandemic. The retailer partnered with LabCorp in April as part of a push to triple its testing capacity. The relationship enabled Walmart to provide LabCorp tests at the drive-thru testing locations it was then opening across the U.S. Earlier this month, LabCorp said it is seeking emergency use authorization for an at-home kit that tests for the novel coronavirus, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus.
At-home sample collection has emerged as a big trend in COVID-19 testing as the pandemic has progressed. Companies such as Phosphorus have created tests that enable people to self-collect samples at home and ship them for processing. Color, another at-home player, received an updated EUA last week to bypass supply chain constraints.
Cellex last week announced a partnership with Gauss to create a fully at-home COVID-19 antigen test that eliminates the need for patients to send samples to a lab. The experimental product consists of a 15-minute antigen test similar to those developed by Abbott and Roche. However, their diagnostics are performed by medical professionals or trained operators, rather than patients themselves at home. Cellex is pairing its test with a smartphone app from Gauss to automate the interpretation of results. It has yet to receive an EUA.