“The stress is increasing now as we enter the hot phase of distribution preparations,” Karin Krestan, head of Lufthansa Cargo’s pharmaceutical center, told AFP.
Once approved by the authorities, some of the millions of Covid-19 vaccines will pass here: Germany’s largest pharmaceutical hub at Frankfurt Airport for what is being set up as a global vaccination campaign unprecedented in human history.
In total, the site has 12,000 air-conditioned m2 reserved for this type of product and last year handled 120,000 tons of cargo.
“We started talking in the spring about how best to transport vaccines against the new coronavirus,” said Max Philipp Konrady, freight manager at Fraport, the operator of Germany’s first airport. “We were ready in August,” he added.
Behind him on the tarmac, under the gray sky at the end of November, dozens of employees in yellow vests unload Seoul Boeing 777 at full speed.
As the pandemic led to an unprecedented drop in passenger flights, freight continued to be used to carry protective equipment and secure supply chains. It will soon become crucial for vaccination campaigns.
– Freezing temperatures –
Lufthansa’s Cargo Cool Center alone has 8,000 m2 of pharmaceutical products. Every day, tons of drugs are already spent here, on pallets or in containers under the constant noise of ventilation.
“The processes are set up,” said Ms Krestan, a former nurse. “You feel well prepared.”
In one of the rooms, set at 5 degrees, the measles vaccines are ready to fly. 2,000 m2 are available at these temperatures, a priori for vaccines with a traditional design against Covid-19.
But some vaccines in preparation, such as German laboratories BioNTech and American Pfizer, well set to be authorized in December, must be transported at -70 degrees.
These freezing temperatures are obtained in special containers thanks to blocks of dry ice, CO2 in solid form with a temperature of -78.9 degrees.
Packed this way, doses can be stored at a constant temperature during transit for up to 100 hours before you need to recharge your battery and ice, says Krestan.
The effect of the vaccine is also transmitted to the manufacturers of specialized freezers, such as the German binder. The company, one of the market leaders, first supplied the laboratories, then the logistics and is now working with the authorities to equip the vaccination centers.
“We work 24 hours a day, we recruit staff,” Anne Lenz, a communications officer, told AFP.
– 15,000 volumes –
According to internal simulations, Frankfurt Airport can operate five aircraft transporting pharmaceutical products in parallel, thanks to two additional refrigerated trailers.
Because outside temperatures, the exceptional volume of scheduled vaccines is “the biggest challenge” the sector has faced, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
One dose of vaccine per person on the ground would fill the equivalent of 8,000 cargo planes. But the more cooling, the less aircraft can carry.
A McKinsey study of logistics giant DHL estimates that 15,000 flights will be needed in two years to transport 10 billion doses.
Instead of air-conditioned halls, where vaccines usually do not last longer than “12 or 24 hours”, “the limiting factor will be the space on the planes”, confirms Krestan, although, for now, also the exact quantities as well. that the required routes are not known.
The Covid-19 vaccine will occupy Frankfurt “mainly in 2021 all year round”, according to Mr. Conrad, “but at the moment it appears that re-vaccination will be necessary, which means we will have to re-transport vaccines every year or two.”