“The stress is mounting now that we are entering the hot phase” of preparations for distribution, explains to AFP Karin Krestan, head of the pharmaceutical center of the freight company Lufthansa Cargo.
Once approved by authorities, some of the millions of Covid-19 vaccines will pass through here: Europe’s largest pharmaceutical transport hub at Frankfurt Airport in Germany for what promises to be a global campaign to vaccination unprecedented in human history.
In total, the site has 12,000 air-conditioned m2 reserved for this type of product and handled 120,000 tonnes of cargo there last year.
“We started discussing in the spring how to best transport vaccines” against the new coronavirus, underlines Max Philipp Conrady, freight manager at Fraport, the operator of the leading German airport. “We were ready in August,” he adds.
Behind him on the tarmac, under the gray sky of late November, dozens of employees in yellow vests unload a Boeing 777 from Seoul at full speed.
As the pandemic has led to an unprecedented drop in passenger flights, cargo transport has continued to be used to carry protective equipment and ensure supply chains. It will soon become crucial for vaccination campaigns.
Lufthansa’s “Cargo Cool Center” alone has 8,000 m2 for pharmaceutical products. Every day, tons of medicines are already passing here, on pallets or in containers under the constant noise of the ventilation.
“The processes are set,” says Ms. Krestan, a former nurse, “you feel well prepared”.
In one of the rooms, set at 5 degrees, measles vaccines are ready to fly. 2,000 m2 are available at these temperatures, a priori for vaccines of traditional design against Covid-19.
But some vaccines in preparation, such as that of the German BioNTech and American laboratories Pfizer, well placed to be authorized as of December, must be transported at -70 degrees.
These freezing temperatures are obtained inside special containers thanks to blocks of dry ice, CO2 in solid form with a temperature of -78.9 degrees.
Packaged in this way, the doses can be kept at a constant temperature in transit for up to 100 hours before needing to recharge the battery and the ice compartment, says Krestan.
The vaccine effect is also passed on to the producers 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 employees,” Anne Lenze, communications officer, told AFP.
According to internal simulations, Frankfurt airport can manage five planes carrying pharmaceutical products in parallel, thanks to two additional refrigerated trailers.
Because beyond the temperatures, the exceptional volume of scheduled vaccine represents “the greatest challenge ever faced” for the sector according to the International Air Transport Association (Iata).
One dose of vaccine per person on earth would fill the equivalent of 8,000 jumbo cargo aircraft. But the more refrigeration, the less an airplane can carry.
A study by McKinsey for the logistics giant DHL estimates that 15,000 flights will be necessary in two years to transport 10 billion doses.
Rather than air-conditioned halls, where vaccines will generally not stay for more than “12 or 24 hours,” “the limiting factor will be room on planes,” confirms Krestan, although, for now, exact volumes as well. that the requested routes are not known.
The vaccine against Covid-19 will occupy Frankfurt “mainly in 2021 all year round”, according to Mr. Conrady, “but it is currently emerging that repeated vaccination will be necessary, which means that we will have to transport again vaccines every year or two years ”.