By Stephanie Bailey, CNN Business
These are dangerous times for people with chronic health conditions. They often need to visit hospitals for treatment or to collect medication, but during the pandemic that means increased risk of exposure to coronavirus.
In Africa, a US startup says it is reducing that risk by using drones to deliver medical supplies to local clinics, and freeing up hospital beds in the process.
Zipline, based in San Francisco, has used drones to deliver blood and medical products to hospitals and health centers in Rwanda since 2016. Last year, it expanded to Ghana and now it wants to accelerate plans to begin deliveries in the United States.
Zipline has two distribution centers in Rwanda and four in Ghana, built to speed up the transport of medical supplies in areas with poor roads and a lack of refrigerated vehicles.
Doctors order products from their phones and drones make the deliveries within a 50-mile range, in an average of 30 minutes, according to Zipline. The drones can carry packages weighing almost 4 pounds (1.8 kilos) and drop them to a designated area on the ground using a simple paper parachute.
Zipline says that it has already delivered over 60,000 units of blood, critical medicines and vaccines for measles, polio and other diseases. Now the company is working with the governments of Rwanda and Ghana to support their coronavirus response efforts, explains Zipline co-founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo.
In Ghana, Zipline’s distribution centers hold stocks of emergency personal protective equipment (PPE), allowing health authorities to target their distribution. It has also started delivering Covid-19 test samples from hospitals in rural Ghana to laboratories in the cities of Accra and Kumasi.
“We are stocking a whole bunch of Covid-19 products and delivering them to hospitals and health facilities, whenever they need them instantly,” Rinaudo told CNN Business.
Vaccines and test kits will be added to Zipline’s inventory when available.
Zipline says that delivering medical supplies to local clinics frees up hospital beds for coronavirus patients, because people with other health conditions can get treatment, such as blood transfusions for example, closer to home.
Rinaudo hopes the drones will soon be able to deliver directly to designated neighborhood drop-off points and even to people’s homes.
“Suddenly there’s a dramatic need to extend the reach of the hospital network and the healthcare system closer to where people live,” said Rinaudo. “You can do that … via instant delivery services.”
Expanding to the US
Launched in 2016, Zipline is worth $1.25 billion and has close to 300 employees, according to the company, with Goldman Sachs among its investors.
Rinaudo says global public health leaders have visited Zipline’s African distribution centers to see how the technology could work in America. Zipline was already planning to launch in the United States later this year and is now hoping to provide coronavirus assistance there, too.
Access to specialty drugs for non-coronavirus patients can be a problem in rural US communities. Zipline hopes that by distributing products that would otherwise only be available at hospitals, it can protect patients and free up beds, just as it’s doing in Africa.
It could also distribute test kits, PPE, and vaccines, once available.
Rinaudo explains that Zipline has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration for over a year to get its aircraft certified to fly in US commercial air space.
The company already has two distribution centers in California which it uses as test facilities, and they can immediately begin deliveries once its aircraft are certified.
“The good news is that there is technology like this available,” said Rinaudo. “The US is falling behind and Covid-19 will be a good chance for us to step into the future and start building infrastructure for the 21st century.”