For a remote health clinic—whether in Africa or in a rural part of the U.S.—one of the challenges presented by the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines is their temperature requirements: The Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius. The ultra-cold freezers needed to store them cost $10,000 or more, and storing the vaccines in dry ice is logistically complicated. Moderna’s vaccine doesn’t have to be quite as cold but still needs to be frozen until it’s ready for use. Getting the vaccines to remote locations quickly, therefore, is key. To do that, some vaccines will soon begin to be delivered to locations by drone.
Zipline, a drone delivery service that first launched in Rwanda in 2014, making emergency deliveries of blood for transfusions to rural clinics, will be ready to begin delivering COVID-19 vaccines in the countries where it currently operates—Rwanda, Ghana, Tanzania, and the rural U.S.—this spring. The company will store vaccines in ultra-cold freezers at its distribution centers, and when a clinic needs vaccines, the drones can make a delivery within roughly half an hour.
“Because we will have ultra-low freezers at our distribution centers, it allows rural and remote health facilities to bypass the need for having the freezers themselves,” says Justin Hamilton, head of global communications and public affairs at Zipline. “And because we make deliveries on demand, we can send the precise amount needed at that very moment. They don’t have to worry about inventory. They don’t have to worry about having too much or having too little—we’re sending it right away.”
Right now, if a vaccine distribution center doesn’t have an ultra-low-temperature freezer, a vaccine such as Pfizer’s can be kept cold for 15 days with dry ice that’s changed every day. But if a facility doesn’t have enough dry ice, the vaccines will only last five days. If it’s a sparsely populated area, they may also not be able to distribute the doses in a box (from 1,000 to 5,000 doses) so quickly. “You’re at risk of spoilage and wastage for what is one of the most precious commodities on the earth right now,” Hamilton says.
When Zipline gets an order, it will send the vaccines inside a box in the drone that tracks the temperature and keeps the vaccine cold. It isn’t ultra-cold—the vaccines will begin to thaw. But because they can be delivered quickly, shots can be administered before the vaccines expire.
Other vaccines that may soon be approved have less stringent temperature requirements but still need to be kept cold and their temperatures carefully tracked. In areas with unreliable electricity for refrigeration, the new system can help. Because it’s designed to work with vaccines that have to stay cold, it also can work with everything else. In Africa, Zipline has already delivered 1.5 million doses of other types of vaccines.
In the rural U.S. and small towns, where hundreds of larger hospitals have closed in the last decade, the facilities that are left are often struggling financially; nearly half were operating at a loss last year. They can’t afford expensive new freezers. Rural residents who get sick may find it harder to access care and may be less likely to survive, so new solutions for delivering the vaccine are especially critical. “Many of these rural facilities don’t have the infrastructure they need to receive these vaccines,” says Hamilton. So while they need them the most, they might be the least likely to get them at a significant scale. Unless we bring in some major help.”