Ziplines delivers Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines in Ghana

Medical drone logistics company Zipline are not new to delivering COVID-19 vaccination in Africa; Ghana in particular. When the COVAX Alliance vaccines were first distributed in Ghana last February, Zipline did its bit, combining efforts with another delivery company, UPS, to make the last mile delivery using the hubs it has been establishing in the country since 2018.

For its first COVID-19 vaccine delivery job, Zipline delivered about 11,000 jabs in three days.

Not that delivering that batch of vaccines was a walk in the park – because Zipline had to set up cold storage facilities at its delivery hubs – but moving vaccines of the Pfizer and BioNTech range is something else.

These vaccines demand a special temperature of around -90°C to stay fresh; distributing them would require some stringent conditions.

But last week in Ghana, the Zips did it.

As the world continues to fight against the global pandemic, vaccines need to get to their destinations faster, and Zipline has now teamed with the two medical companies to ensure faster last mile delivery of their vaccines in Ghana.

The last mile logistics company successfully completed the first long-range drone delivery of both authorised mRNA COVID-19 vaccines requiring ultra-cold-chain, after working with the two drug manufacturing companies earlier this year to develop and test an end-to-end vaccine delivery solution, which will allow for the distribution of approximately 50,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine in the west African country; cementing the new mode for vaccine transportation.

“In addition to financial support for the pilot program, Pfizer and BioNTech provided technical assistance and know-how specific to the management and storage of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine at -90°C to -60°C,” Pfizer Inc said in a statement last week, adding that this partnership had paved the way for drone deliveries of all mRNA vaccines.

To date, Pfizer-BioNTech have distributed nearly two billion vaccines in 155 countries and territories across the world; a third of which have been delivered to low- and middle-income countries through its agreement with COVAX.

Now, they are actively working on collaborating with both public and private organisations to accelerate the vaccine rollout worldwide.

Zipline on the other hand, has thus far successfully delivered 220,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses from multiple manufacturers have been successfully distributed across Ghana; the first company to do so through an autonomous aircraft at national scale.

Zipline helped deliver some of the COVAX vaccines in March this year

For their collaboration with Pfizer-BioNTech, process will work thus: the Pfizer-BioNTech jabs are transported from their plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the USA, to Ghana’s capital Accra in thermal shippers that can maintain temperatures between -90°C and -60°C. Upon arrival at Kotoka International Airport, the vaccines are taken in vans to Zipline’s four distribution centres 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 healthcare,” said Caroline Roan, Chief Sustainability Officer and Senior Vice President, Global Health and Social Impact at Pfizer. “Drone deliveries are truly the next frontier in how we think about getting out to the communities that have been left behind.”

There, they are moved to freezers before thawing and storage in standard refrigerators. Once thawed, the shots can be kept for as long as a month at between 2°C and -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.

“Delivery to people in remote and hard-to-reach places is a primary challenge for global vaccination,” said Keller Rinaudo, co-founder and CEO of Zipline. “In partnership with Pfizer and BioNTech, we have created a solution to address this potential pain point head on. Together, we are working to help transform vaccine distribution into a more effective, equitable process.”

Making COVID-19 vaccines accessible to an entire country’s population presents logistical challenges for many governments and healthcare organisations, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, but Zipline is helping to address these challenges by implementing an end-to-end distribution model that safely delivers any COVID-19 vaccine to all corners of a country through its autonomous Zips.

“Pfizer has a history of investing with partners to improve access to medicines and vaccines in the most remote areas of the world,” said Roan. “We are proud of this collaboration with Zipline to implement breakthrough solutions that help advance equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, particularly for hard to reach and underserved populations.”

Roan’s industry colleague Sierk Poetting, BioNTech’s Chief Operating Officer, was equally delighted at the opportunity to distribute vaccines at a faster rate

“The global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines requires a coordinated effort,” Poetting said. “We are working together with local partners and governments to establish a robust local end-to-end manufacturing and distribution network. This collaboration between Pfizer, BioNTech and Zipline showcases our collective commitment to pioneering new solutions that can help address COVID-19 vaccine access challenges.”

Zipline, Pfizer and BioNTech tested and validated the end-to-end model for delivery of mRNA vaccines with ultra-cold-chain requirements, and Zipline will now utilise it to distribute Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccines, as well as COVID-19 vaccines from all manufacturers, to regions across Ghana.

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