Role of Medical Drones in Global Covid Vaccine Campaign Is Growing

  • The ultra-cold temperatures required for storing some Covid-19 vaccines create logistical challenges for medical facilities.
  • Drone-delivery start-up Zipline is working on a distribution plan with end-to-end cold chain capabilities.
  • The company has pioneered use of drones for medical supplies, often in hard to reach, less developed regions.

Zipline, the California-based drone start-up that delivers critical medical supplies in countries like Ghana and Rwanda, is pursuing a larger role in the Covid-19 global vaccine effort and taking on one of the trickiest logistical challenges: cold-chain storage.

Earlier this week, Nigeria's Kaduna state signed a deal with Zipline allowing the drone delivery of Covid-19 vaccines. Kaduna's partnership with Zipline, which delivered more than 1 million doses of other vaccines in Africa over the past year, will also enable on-demand delivery of blood products, medications and other vaccines.

The deal with Kaduna did not include cold chain storage, but separately, Zipline is working on a plan to distribute Covid-19 vaccines with end-to-end cold chain capabilities. The ultra-cold temperatures required for storing the Covid-19 vaccine developed by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and Germany-based BioNTech has not only driven a buying frenzy for freezers and dry ice, but also created logistical challenges for cash-strapped medical facilities that may not be able to afford such equipment.

"Cold chain distribution in pharma is complicated even in normal times," David Gitlin, president and CEO of Carrier Global Corp. told CNBC in November. "You have a clock ticking, you have an expiration date, you have multiple modes of transportation, multiple handoffs, from [original equipment manufacturer] all the way to administration. ... The good news is public and private industry all coming together to be part of the solution through more capacity and new digital capabilities."

Zipline — which ranked No. 7 on the 2020 CNBC Disruptor 50 list — plans to leverage its drone delivery network for frozen and ultra-low temperature Covid-19 vaccines and medical products in the markets where it operates, starting this April. It declined to specify a vaccine partner.

Pfizer's vaccine needs to be stored in ultra cold freezers that keep it between negative 112 and negative 76 degrees Fahrenheit. Other Covid-19 vaccines, such as those developed by Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca, can be stored at less extreme temperatures. Johnson & Johnson has said it plans to ship its vaccine at 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit, which is consistent with standard vaccine distribution.

In the United States and Africa, Zipline will add ultra-low refrigeration capacity at its distribution centers and "conduct end-to-end thermal validation from the point of pick-up to the patient," according a Zipline statement.

A Pfizer spokeswoman said it supports Zipline's efforts to expand access to vaccines and medicines to those in hard to reach geographies. "We share Zipline's commitment to innovative solutions to ensure equity in the distribution of vaccines and medicines," she wrote in an email to CNBC, though she declined to specifically confirm a deal had been signed with Zipline.

The U.S. is recording at least 141,400 new Covid-19 cases and at least 3,090 virus-related deaths each day, based on a seven-day average calculated by CNBC, using Johns Hopkins University data. Encouraging vaccine data continues to pop up around the globe, even as virus variants threaten to derail progress. An Oxford University study found its vaccine, developed alongside AstraZeneca, is still effective after delaying the second dose, which could ease distribution challenges and increase availability.

Last May, Zipline signed a medical delivery deal in the U.S. as a result of Covid-19. The FAA granted Novant Health the authority for contactless distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) and critical medical supplies to frontline medical teams in the Charlotte, North Carolina metro area, via Zipline-operated drones.

The company also announced a partnership with Walmart to launch a delivery service of select health and wellness products in the U.S.

"More than 100 million people in America — in both rural and urban areas — live in pharmacy deserts and lack adequate access to the medicine they need to stay healthy," Zipline co-founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo told CNBC. "Building this 21st century infrastructure will not only create more high tech jobs in rural America, and create more green, zero emissions logistics options, but it could revolutionize the way millions get their care delivered."

Nominations are open for the 2021 CNBC Disruptor 50, a list of private start-ups using breakthrough technology to become the next generation of great public companies. Submit by Friday, Feb. 12, at 3 pm EST.

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