Würzburg | At first glance, these are ordinary boxes but they contain a jewel of technology: the containers of the German company Va-Q-Tec, champions of thermal insulation, will transport the vaccines against Covid-19 in their refrigerated journey. across the planet.
After the United Kingdom on Wednesday, the first country to approve the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine, medical authorities around the world will soon vote on authorization requests filed by laboratories.
The enormous logistical challenge will then consist in keeping the billions of vaccine doses that will travel to the four corners of the world cool. That of BioNTech / Pfizer requires for the moment a conservation at -70 degrees.
With his products, which he compares to the operation of “big thermos”, Joachim Kuhn runs an SME at the forefront of super insulating materials that help maintain the cold chain.
In the hangars of the Va-Q-Tec company, based in Würtzburg, Bavaria, a ballet of lifting machines is deployed around the workers who assemble panels with glue or manufacture vacuum linings to equip the boxes.
Until the polar cold
Thanks to the use of a technology using silica particles, a constant temperature, ranging from a few degrees of a refrigerator to the polar cold, can be maintained for ten days.
In mid-November, Va-Q-Tec announced an agreement for the supply of thermal containers with “a leading international pharmaceutical manufacturer” of the vaccine against Covid-19 but which professional secrecy prevents naming. Pfizer has been rumored in the media.
In total, the SME is involved “in 30 to 40 projects”, related to vaccination against Covid-19, around the world, says Mr. Kuhn.
Va-Q-Tec will build “more than 10,000 containers next year”, against a fleet of 2,500 to date, offered for hire, continues the boss.
Even at very low temperatures, these materials only have a minimal need for dry ice, another advantage when the resources of this new white gold are limited. They work without an electric motor for cooling, unlike super fridges.
The company also plans to manufacture more than 100,000 boxes as large as picnic ice boxes, compared to 25,000 currently in stock.
“Our teams are prepared,” while the capacities of the group’s two factories, located in Germany, will operate 24 hours a day, says Kuhn.
Va-Q-Tec has already won the loyalty of a clientele of laboratories for the transport at very low temperature of active pharmaceutical ingredients (API).
Offer for hot countries
Faced with the challenge of vaccine shipments to Africa, Latin America or part of Southeast Asia, with high outside temperatures and poor infrastructure, Va-Q-Tec has devised a specific solution: a container lighter, dressed in cardboard to be recyclable and delivered in pieces that will be assembled on site.
Another innovation for this former start-up launched in 2001 by Mr. Kuhn, students from the University of Würzburg and the Bavarian Center for Applied Energy Research (ZAE) on the basis of research on space-saving insulating materials.
The company now has seven locations around the world and employs 500 people, with a turnover of 65 million euros in 2019.
Listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in 2016, its capitalization has climbed in recent weeks to half a billion euros, still far from the billions posted by other German nuggets in biotechnology such as BioNTech or Curevac laboratories, which have opted for the stock market adventure of the American Nasdaq.
The thermal container market, also coveted by the American Csafe and the Swedish Envirotainer, grows by 10% every year and Va-Q-Tec believes it can do better, having subscribed to a growth rate of 20 to 30% for more than ten years.
The thermal technology of Va-Q-Tec could in fact be used in high-end refrigerators, the insulation of buildings, the coating of pipes and boilers even in the air and the automobile, which “suggests great opportunities. for the company ”, comments Guido Hoymann, analyst at Metzler.
“We won’t have to worry about sitting on a large fleet of unused containers” once the covid vaccination phase is over, Mr. Kuhn is convinced.