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story.lead_photo.caption Vials of Covishield, the local name for the covid-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, move along a conveyor on the production line at the Serum Institute of India Ltd. Hadaspar plant in Pune, Maharashtra, India, on Jan. 22, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Dhiraj Singh.

Zipline Inc., a drone delivery service that specializes in medical supplies, announced Thursday that it plans to begin transporting covid-19 vaccines in April.

The South San Francisco-based startup said in a release that it is 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, last year, began delivering personal protective equipment to hospitals and clinics in North Carolina. It plans to add operations in Nigeria later this year.

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 negative 70 degrees Celsius, requiring special freezers. Zipline plans to add these ultra cold refrigerators at all of its distribution centers.

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 Inc. 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 pounds each by parachute and can fly up to 100 miles round trip. A single distribution site can operate dozens of drones and supply an area of up to 8,000 square miles. The company says its drones have flown more than 4 million miles and made nearly 400,000 deliveries in the last five years.

“Any innovative option for delivering vaccines to rural communities is a great idea,” said Alan Morgan, chief executive officer 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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