The drone, the sputum and the machine: private money and public goods on Papua New Guinea’s diagnostic frontier
Session of the seminar of the Chair of Anthropology and Global Health with Alice Street, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom.
When MSF installed a Cepheid GeneXpert machine for the diagnosis of tuberculosis in the remote provincial hospital of Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea, they hoped they would be extending much needed health services to remote populations. Instead they found those populations remained out of reach, in small hamlets and villages dispersed across mountains and river valleys. At the same time, by chance, the mission director saw a TED talk by a young entrepreneur with a Californian start up company and a vision for a future network of unmanned drones that could transport much needed medical supplies across resource-poor areas with no established infrastructure. So began a novel international partnership to test the feasibility of transporting sputum samples from remote health facilities to the provincial hospital by drone. This paper explores what such partnerships can tell us about changing relationships between humanitarianism, business and technology in global health. Drones that make money and save lives are championed as a win-win situation. But who wins? And what kinds of future health systems do such partnerships help to build?