When Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine first came out, it needed to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius – a temperature colder than the winter in Antarctica. But with the US Food and Drug Administration relaxing the temperature mandates for transportation and storage of undiluted vials, a new opportunity has opened up for delivery drones. And it’s an opportunity that delivery solutions company UPS is looking to leverage with the help of special cold chain packaging, developed specifically for drones.
The headline is that UPS’s delivery drones have received a first-of-its-kind approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to carry alkaline and lithium batteries, which are needed to power temperature monitoring devices required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for COVID-19 vaccine transport.
Following this approval, UPS has started COVID-19 vaccine deliveries via drones, beginning with the first delivery operation in Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this week.
It’s worth noting that with Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist launched a drone program in July 2020 to transport specialty infusion medicines and lab specimens. Now, the medical center will be able to use drones to shuttle the COVID-19 vaccine from its main campus to its network of clinics, which would improve productivity in its pharmacy by as much as 30%.
Custom cold chain solution fuels UPS drone delivery of COVID-19 vaccine
According to UPS Flight Forward, a UPS subsidiary that is spearheading the program, this is the first COVID-19 vaccine drone delivery in the US.
To be able to deliver all types of COVID-19 vaccines, UPS Flight Forward has gotten a custom solution designed for Matternet drones. This solution allows the drones to maintain temperature control at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius with less insulation compared to ground transport – since they are subject to less vibration.
And because the delivery time is also reduced dramatically, with the vaccine spending less time in transit, the drones can utilize gel packs instead of dry ice.
Meanwhile, these drone deliveries include a temperature monitoring device required by the CDC, just like other COVID-19 vaccine shipments handled by UPS.
The success of this solution has got Dan Gagnon, vice president of global marketing for UPS Healthcare, convinced that the program will pave the way for drones to become a “meaningful link within highly-specialized cold chain logistics.”
Stressing that autonomous, battery-powered drones that produce zero operational emissions are the future of healthcare, Dan says:
Not only is this a more sustainable way to open vaccine access to remote communities, but the implications extend far beyond COVID-19. This new cold chain drone capability is a proof point of opportunity for all our healthcare customers, including clinical trial shipments, cold chain pharmaceuticals and other temperature-sensitive biologics.
Conrad Emmerich, senior vice president of supply chain at Atrium Health, concurs with Dan while saying:
The ability and ingenuity to add an innovative layer to our health care supply chain by transporting COVID-19 vaccines via drone provides us with additional rapid delivery options for these time- and temperature-sensitive vaccines.
Note that, globally, this program is the second COVID-19 vaccine drone delivery operation, following drone deliveries in Ghana in Africa supported by a public-private partnership between the UPS Foundation, UPS Flight Forward, Zipline, and Gavi.
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