US startup taking coronavirus fight to the skies

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As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world, those with chronic illnesses are finding it hard to get the care they need. Normally, many chronically ill patients have to visit hospitals for treatment or medications. The current circumstances are complicating this routine process in many ways.

One U.S startup is solving this problem in an innovative way. Zipline, a San Francisco-based company, is using drones to air-drop essential medical supplies to local African clinics. By taking to the skies, Zipline helps indirectly free up hospital beds and reduce COVID-19 exposure risk for already-sick patients.

Zipline is no stranger to air-based medical support. Since 2016, the company has used drones to deliver blood and other medical products to health institutions throughout Rwanda. Now, Zipline’s capabilities are proving their value in slightly different ways.

Zipline’s History in Africa

Zipline currently has distribution centers in both Rwanda and Ghana. The startup targeted those areas because of certain challenges that are unique to the regions. Both have poor road infrastructure and a lack of refrigerated vehicles, which are critical for cold chain medical transport.

According to Zipline, physicians can order product deliveries from their phones. Drones will make drops within a 50-mile range in 30 minutes, on average. Zipline’s carriers can hold packages up to 4 lbs and drop them over designated areas using paper parachutes.

The startup has reportedly already delivered more than 60,000 units of blood, vaccines, and medications since its founding. Today, Zipline is working closely with leaders in Ghana and Rwanda to help address coronavirus-specific challenges.

Enhancing COVID-19 Response Efforts

Zipline has pivoted slightly to help relieve the pressures countries are facing related to the coronavirus. The startup believes that drone deliveries to local clinics keep chronically ill patients away from hospitals while still providing them with access to critical treatment.

Zipline’s distribution centers in Ghana have emergency personal protective equipment (PPE). The company has also started sending coronavirus test samples from rural hospitals to labs in 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,” says CEO Keller Rinaudo. When vaccines and test kits come available, Zipline also plans to add those to its inventory.

Looking ahead, Rinaudo wants to hone in even further and perform neighborhood or even private home deliveries. “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. The company is perfectly positioned to achieve this goal.

Stateside Success

Zipline is currently valued at $1.25 billion and boasts investments from big names, including Goldman Sachs. The company has close to 300 employees.

While Zipline has focused on Africa, it is beginning to explore the possibility of a U.S. launch this year. The coronavirus might be accelerating that timeline as rural American communities face similar challenges when it comes to specialty drug access for chronically ill patients.

Rinaudo is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to gain the necessary certifications to fly in U.S. commercial air space. Once Zipline gets approved, it can begin distributing out of its two California-based centers and help the domestic response effort. In 2020, we might see commercial drone deliveries for the very first time. They just won’t be under circumstances anyone could have anticipated.

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