Merck testing drone delivery for vaccines in North Carolina

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One of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world is testing the delivery of vaccines via drone to get them to patients faster.

Merck is working with Volansi, a commercial drone delivery company, to pilot the program. Volansi’s drone system enables the delivery of cold chain medicines from Merck’s Wilson, North Carolina, manufacturing site to Vidant Healthplex – Wilson, a Vidant Health clinic.

It’s the first of three phases in a project to learn about drone technology’s role and ability to improve the healthcare supply chain and access to healthcare, the companies said.

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Delivery of vaccines by autonomous drones can significantly reduce the time it takes for a vaccine to reach a patient in need. Merck is using the project to evaluate whether drone delivery can help address logistical and infrastructure barriers that prevent access to high-quality preventive care.

With 1.4 million people across 29 counties, eastern North Carolina’s vast, rural environment can create challenges for accessing care. Many residents live miles from the nearest pharmacy or clinic.

“For those suffering from diseases or chronic conditions, having a supply chain that works for them isn’t just about convenience—it’s a matter of life or death,” Hannan Parvizian, CEO and co-founder of Volansi, wrote in a blog post about the partnership with Merck.

Initial flights in the project resulted in the first drone delivery of temperature-controlled medicines within the U.S., the companies said.

“As a healthcare leader, Merck is very supportive of collaborations using new technologies to explore how one day we could help better serve the healthcare community. Our existing distribution system is strong, and this pilot helps us explore new innovative delivery options that would complement our existing supply chain capabilities,” said Craig Kennedy, senior vice president for global supply chain management at Merck, in a statement.

“We’ve seen the world’s supply chain strained like never before from the impact of coronavirus,” said Parvizian said in a statement.

“There’s now an accelerated need for rapid advancements in supply chain technology, especially in healthcare. Drone delivery is one solution to getting critical supplies where they are needed, at the moment they are needed most,” he said.

Last year, WakeMed Health & Hospitals announced a partnership with UPS to deliver medical samples via unmanned drone at the health system’s campus in North Carolina. Other hospitals that have launched drone programs including UC San Diego Health, Kaiser Permanente and Rady Children’s Hospital.

Last year, Walgreens became the first pharmacy retailer to test drone delivery using drones to fulfill customer orders for food and beverage products and over-the-counter medications. The on-demand drone delivery service is in partnership with Alphabet’s Wing Aviation. CVS Health also has joined forces with UPS to test several different applications for drone delivery, including delivering prescriptions and retail products to patient’s homes.

In September, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, retail giant Walmart announced it was piloting drone delivery of home sample collection kits for COVID-19 in partnership with Quest Diagnostics.

Merck’s partnership with Volansi builds on previous collaborations to deliver temperature-sensitive medicines in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico after the devastation of hurricanes Maria and Florence, according to Parvizian in the blog post.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for rapid advancements in healthcare supply chain technology abundantly clear. Our pilot program in North Carolina will help answer this need by exploring innovative new delivery options that can make medical supply chains more flexible and responsive,” he wrote.

The project utilizes Volansi’s VOLY C10, an all-electric drone capable of carrying 10 pounds of cargo to locations up to 50 miles away. The VOLY C10’s vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) system allows it to deliver fragile cargo with a “soft touch” automated release once the drone has landed at the delivery location. The VTOL system also requires minimal infrastructure to operate and is capable of delivering on the returning flight items to support order confirmation like temperature trackers and shipping confirmation.

Volansi is seeking additional approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to provide deliveries in additional locations for phases two and three of the project, enabling a flexible, on-demand and responsive supply of critical medicines.