Drones deliver COVID-19 vaccines to remote communities

Two women preparing unmanned air vehicle before a flight (© Ruth McDowall/AFP/Getty Images)
Employees prepare to launch a medical supply delivery drone at a Zipline air base in Omenako, Ghana, in 2019. The State Department honored the U.S.-based company December 8 for its innovations in health. (© Ruth McDowall/AFP/Getty Images)

Equitably distributing COVID-19 vaccines is “the biggest moral test” facing the world, the United Nations says. But getting vaccine doses to remote communities remains a significant challenge.

Zipline tackles that challenge with drones. The U.S. company’s tiny robotic airplanes have already delivered more than 220,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses from multiple manufacturers in Ghana.

The U.S. Department of State on December 8 honored Zipline and medical supply producer 3M Singapore with its Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE). ACE winners display exemplary practices in overseas operations. These two companies won in the health security category. California-based Zipline and 3M, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, both worked to secure supply chains for critical goods and services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three different 3M respirator masks on flat surface (© Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters)
The State Department honored Minnesota-based company 3M for its prominent role in helping to contain health threats. The company makes N95 respirator masks. (© Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters)

Difficult deliveries of sensitive vaccines

Founded in 2014, Zipline began drone deliveries of blood for emergency transfusions in Rwanda two years later. But development of sensitive messenger RNA vaccines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. pledge to give, not sell, 1.2 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to low- and middle-income nations posed a huge challenge for anyone transporting the new vaccines. While the mRNA vaccines have been shown to be up to 95% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in clinical testing, the serum must be stored at temperatures far below freezing.

Zipline met the challenge. It collaborated with mRNA vaccine producer Pfizer-BioNTech in a partnership that will allow for the distribution of approximately 50,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine in Ghana.

Meanwhile, the United States has delivered more than 275 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, reaching over 110 countries and economies. U.S. companies are also sharing their expertise to streamline vaccine delivery and support vaccination sites.

Most U.S.-COVID-19 vaccine donations are through COVAX, an international partnership dedicated to equitably distributing COVID-19 vaccines. Zipline has delivered more than 26,000 vaccine doses from COVAX, personal protective equipment and COVID-19 test kits to underserved communities in Ghana.

3M masks protecting workers

3M tripled its global production of N95 masks in 2020 from 2019. It now produces 2.5 billion masks annually. Additionally, 3M partners with hospitals to fit-test medical workers for N95 masks and certifies trainers to ensure that masks properly protect front-line workers.

The company first produced N95 masks in the 1990s by incorporating electrocharged fibers, invented by Taiwanese American scientist Peter Tsai, into its design.

3M also has partnered with the government of Singapore to combat counterfeiting of medical supplies. Through a fraud-complaint hotline and other efforts, 3M has contributed to the seizure of more than 55.4 million counterfeit N95 masks and the removal of more than 28,000 fraudulent online sales offerings.

Learn more about the companies winning the 2021 Secretary’s Award for Corporate Excellence in the categories of climate innovation and economic inclusion.