As a series of COVID-19 vaccines nearing approval, Frankfurt Airport staff are preparing for the unprecedented logistical challenge of moving millions of life-saving cans around the world.
Frankfurt is Europe’s largest hub for the transport of medicines and will be the key to the success of vaccinating millions of people against the deadly coronavirus.
“The stress is increasing now that we are entering the ‘hot’ phase”, Karin Krestan, operations manager at Lufthansa Cargo, told AFP during a tour of the temperature-controlled terminal “Cargo Cool Center”.
Using her skills as a former nurse, Krestan feels confident that her team is ready for the job.
“The processes have been established, we are very confident and feel well prepared,” she said.
In fact, Max Philipp Conrady, Head of Freight Infrastructure at Fraport, told AFP: “We have been ready since August.”
The Frankfurt freight terminal has been in operation around the clock since the beginning of the pandemic. It supplies medicines, surgical gowns, and masks, and supports global supply chains when passenger numbers collapsed and airlines landed planes.
The huge temperature-controlled hangar, just a few kilometers from the main passenger terminal, carried 120,000 tons of vaccines, medicines and other pharmaceutical products in 2019, said the airport operator Fraport.
It has 12,000 square meters of temperature-controlled warehouses, essential for the storage of medicines, and 2,000 square meters of cold storage, ideal for vaccines.
Fraport recently increased its investment in refrigerated high-tech dollies that transport vaccines from cold stores to aircraft and now has 20 so that multiple freighters can be loaded at the same time.
Some vaccines, like the one made by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, can be shipped at normal refrigerator temperatures.
Pfizer’s, which was developed in the BioNTech laboratory in Mainz, around 20 km from Frankfurt Airport, must, however, remain at around -70 ° C.
This requires cart-sized containers that use dry ice to keep the contents at stable, extremely low temperatures.
You can do this for up to 120 hours without power, long enough to reach destinations far away.
The EU recently agreed to purchase 300 million doses of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine in a major logistical operation, much of which will affect Frankfurt in the coming months.
While the airport has the capacity to handle the extra cold cargo, Krestan noted that flight capacity will be a major factor in the pace of distribution.
Supplying the world’s nearly eight billion people with a single dose would require 8,000 jumbo jets, IATA estimated in September, adding that the cargo industry is facing “the greatest single-haul challenge ever”.
Cargo planes can typically carry up to a million cans, unless sub-zero temperatures are required.