UPS Flight Forward forges ahead with drone delivery of Covid-19 vaccine


Program expands an ongoing effort at Wake Forest

Said to be a first in the US, drone delivery of Covid-19 vaccine is now occurring at a setup between Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist (AHWFB) in Winston-Salem, NC, and a local clinic. UPS Flight Forward, a “revenue generating” business unit of UPS, has had an existing program since 2020 within the AHWFB network; the company says that IV infusions and lab samples have been routinely carried over the past year, with a frequency of at least 10X/day.

The UPS Flight Forward service depends on drone technology from a Silicon Valley company, Matternet, and its M2 aircraft. When originally set up, the AHWFB service involves shipments of 30 minutes or so, avoiding traffic problems in on-the-ground deliveries. For Covid-19 vaccine delivery, UPS crafted a hard-plastic container into which a phase-change coolant from Cold Chain Technologies is loaded. Based on a video shown to journalists, the package is loaded with Pfizer vaccine directly from ultracold storage, but the shipment is monitored and maintained at 2-8°C, or 36-46°F. (It is necessary to warm frozen vaccine before administration, and there is a specified time limit where the vaccine is kept at 2-8°C while remaining efficacious.)

Wake Forest administrators are confident that the appropriate temperature can be maintained during delivery, while UPS looks on the project as an expansion of its capabilities. “The delivery of Covid-19 vaccines by drone is an exciting and important step for UPS,” said Dan Gagnon, VP of UPS Healthcare. “We’re providing greater flexibility in how customers, and ultimately patients, receive temperature-controlled pharmaceuticals, which will continue to provide long-term value within the health care industry.”

The project is all the more significant because just a couple weeks earlier, according to press reports in Germany, DHL shut down its drone program, which involved shipping medical products in remote areas of Tanzania. Meanwhile, another drone operator, Zipline, has been expanding its program for medical shipments in Ghana and Rwanda, while Matternet itself has been conducting operations in Lugano, Switzerland and Berlin.

In addressing the ongoing pandemic, UPS says that it has delivered 600 million vaccine dosages all over the world, which, based on press reports of some 4.5 billion doses having been delivered to date, would represent over 13% of global supply.

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