Drones ferry Pfizer’s precious, deep-frozen vaccine to Africa’s remote villages

  • Drones
  • Friday, 12 Nov 2021

Pfizer’s collaboration with Zipline dates back to before the pandemic, when the companies began working together in 2019 to bring essential medicines to hard-to reach communities. — Zipline

Over the dense forests and cocoa farms of Ghana’s Ashanti region, a fleet of drones hummed en route to the African country’s central Bosomtwe District. Upon reaching their destination Sunday, the red-and-white aircraft parachuted thermal packages containing cargo that’s long been awaited by the local Kokodei community: vials of Pfizer Inc’s Covid-19 vaccine.

In the coming days, these drones will shuttle tens of thousands of the shots developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech SE to some of Ghana’s most rugged, remote countryside as part of an effort to provide more equitable access to doses. Every four minutes, from dawn until dusk, drones operated by Zipline Inc will depart from its distribution centers bearing the immunisations. It’s been tasked with bringing doses to 40% of Ghana’s population.

This isn’t Zipline’s first time working with Covid vaccines and supplies, but highly effective messenger RNA shots have a strict requirement for storage at ultra-cold temperatures. Until ready for use, the Pfizer-BioNTech doses must be stored as cold as -90°C – colder than the lowest readings ever recorded on Earth’s surface. Ghana is among the many low- and middle-income countries lacking the equipment and infrastructure to store and deliver these shots.

“When you go outside the city, you get to places where delivering can be a nightmare,” Zipline senior vice president of Africa Daniel Marfo said in an interview. “That is the real last mile: places where road accessibility is terrible, where changing weather conditions can cut communities off, where river bodies or lakes separate people from the mainland.”

The US government donated the Pfizer-BioNTech shots through the World Health Organisation-backed Covax programme, and Ghana has turned to Zipline to make the deliveries. In total, the startup will ferry 50,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses across nine districts of the Ashanti region – known for gold craftsmanship, cocoa, coffee and palm oil farms, a meteoritic lake, and heavy rainfall – along with other districts further north and west.

“As part of our national response plan, we are committed to the equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to all Ghanaians, no matter where they live,” Health Minister Kwaku Agyemang-Manu said in a statement. “Through this partnership, we have implemented a new vaccines delivery model to ensure Covid-19 vaccines are quickly accessible across the country.”

The programme is an important step in raising immunity to Covid around the world, not just in the wealthy countries that have have been under fire for snapping up doses of vaccines, particularly the messenger RNA shots made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Inc. While the US has pledged to donate more than one billion doses to poorer countries, vast populations remain without access, and companies have also been criticised for failing to make doses more widely available.

To date, Pfizer and BioNTech have delivered two billion doses of the vaccine around the world, and one-third have gone to low- and middle-income countries. By the end of 2022, the vaccine partners have committed to distributing two billion in total to such countries. Zipline will be a part of that effort, with the capacity to launch more than a hundred flights a day. Moderna has also stepped up access measures, saying Thursday that it’s selling shots to the African Union for US$7, lower than it has charged some countries in the past.

Caroline Roan, Pfizer’s chief sustainability officer and senior vice president of global health and social impact, said in an interview that the work to bring the vaccine to remote areas is just the beginning. They've looped Moderna’s doses into the programme, and already Zipline has delivered 20,000 mRNA vaccines – a milestone in overcoming the vaccines’ storage needs. The companies plan to replicate the drone delivery project in other countries with challenges navigating the shot’s cold-chain requirements. Zipline’s next target is Nigeria, which has additional distribution hurdles.

“In the northern part of the country, access problems are compounded by bandits, terrorists and Boko Haram,” a group fighting to overthrow the government, Marfo said. “Even in places where the road isn’t that bad, it’s just unsafe to travel.”

Drones should become a more commonly used tool for health care in conflict zones, he said.

Here’s how the process works: Pfizer-BioNTech shots are transported from their plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan to Ghana’s capital of Accra in thermal shippers that can maintain temperatures from -90°C to -60°C. Upon arrival at Kotoka International Airport, the vaccines are transported in vans to Zipline’s four distribution centers around the country.

“We’ve always wanted to use technology as a leapfrog to ensure that all communities in the world have access to quality health-care,” Roan said. “Drone deliveries are truly the next frontier in how we think about getting out to the communities that have been left behind.”

There, they’re moved to freezers before thawing and storage in standard refrigerators. Once thawed, the shots can be kept for as long as a month at 2°C to 8°C. Insulation and packing inside the drones can keep cargo at that temperature for at least four hours and prevent the vials from breaking when they land. Zipline conducted test-runs with the vaccine partners throughout the summer to make sure the shots arrived safe and sound.

Pfizer’s collaboration with Zipline dates back to before the pandemic, when the companies began working together in 2019 to bring essential medicines to hard-to reach communities. Roan sees the relationship continuing long into the future.

“Pardon the pun,” she said, “but I think the sky is the limit.” – Bloomberg

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