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Drone start-up Zipline to deliver Covid-19 vaccines to far-flung places

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San Francisco — Zipline, a drone delivery service that specialises in medical supplies, announced on Thursday that it plans to begin transporting Covid-19 vaccines in April.

The San Francisco, US-based start-up said in a release that it was partnering with “a leading manufacturer of Covid-19 vaccines” in all of the markets where its drones currently operate. Zipline has been delivering medicine and supplies to rural clinics in Rwanda and Ghana since 2016 and, in 2020, began delivering personal protective equipment to hospitals and clinics in North Carolina, US. It plans to add operations in Nigeria later in 2021.

Zipline declined to specify its vaccine partner but said it has built a system that can deliver ultra-low temperature medical supplies, including “all leading Covid-19 vaccines”. The vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech must be stored in extreme cold at temperatures of -70°C, requiring special freezers. Zipline plans to add these ultra cold refrigerators at all of its distribution centres.

A spokesperson for Pfizer did not respond to requests for comment.

Vaccine distribution sites without ultra-low refrigeration have limited options: They can forego Pfizer’s vaccine entirely opting for the Moderna alternative and hoping for additional vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and others to gain FDA approval; keep Pfizer’s vaccine vials on dry ice for up to 30 days; or keep them in standard refrigerators for up to five days. Zipline can help bypass the need for freezers — and prevent vaccines from spoiling — by repeatedly supplying a small numbers of doses on demand. A clinic in its network, the company says, will be able to request a few dozen doses of a Covid-19 vaccine and receive them at an ultra low temperature in less than an hour.

Zipline’s fixed-wing, battery-powered drones navigate by GPS. They drop payloads of a few kilograms each by parachute and can fly up to 160km round trip. A single distribution site can operate dozens of drones and supply an area of up to about 21,000km2. The company says its drones have flown about 6.5-million kilometres and made nearly 400,000 deliveries in the past five years.

“Any innovative option for delivering vaccines to rural communities is a great idea,” said Alan Morgan, CEO at the National Rural Health Association. When Pfizer began rolling out its vaccine in December, Morgan feared that communities outside the reach of the ultra-cold supply chain would be left behind. So far, he says, that has not been the case, as rural clinics have been able to get deliveries packed in dry ice and get injections into arms quickly. “But once we start moving this into the general population,” he says, “getting to these small and remote towns is going to be an issue.”

Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said the company wants to help rural areas that have been hard hit by the coronavirus. “Where you live shouldn’t determine whether or not you get a Covid-19 vaccine,” he said in the release. “We can help health systems bypass infrastructure and supply chain challenges through instant delivery.”


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