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Frankfurt airport prepares to transport millions of vaccine doses

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A Frankfurt airport worker stands by the temperature-controlled dry ice carts used to transport the most sensitive of the vaccines. AFP

FRANKFURT (AFP) – As a string of COVID-19 vaccines near approval, Frankfurt Airport staff are gearing up to handle the unprecedented logistical challenge of transporting millions of life-saving doses worldwide.

Frankfurt is Europe’s largest hub for transporting pharmaceutical goods and will be key to the success of inoculating millions of people against the deadly coronavirus.

“The stress is increasing now that we’re entering the ‘hot’ phase, ” Karin Krestan, Lufthansa Cargo’s director of operations, said during a tour of the temperature-controlled “Cargo Cool Center” terminal.

Frankfurt’s cargo terminal has been working around the clock since the pandemic began, delivering medicine, surgical gowns and masks and supporting global supply chains as passenger numbers collapsed and airlines grounded planes.

The vast temperature-controlled hangar, a few kilometres from the main passenger terminal, handled 120,000 tons of vaccines, drugs and other pharmaceutical products in 2019, airport operator Fraport said.

Warehouses hum as ventilation systems pump conditioned air and staff buzz around on forklifts. Boxes packed with measles vaccines stand ready for departure.

Frankfurt has 2,000 square metres of cold storage, Krestan said, set at two to eight degrees Celsius, which is ideal for vaccines.

Fraport recently boosted investment in high-tech refrigerated “dollies” that transport vaccines from cold-storage hangars to planes, and now have 20 so several freighters can be loaded at the same time.

Pfizer’s vaccine, developed at the BioNTech lab in Mainz, around 20km from the Frankfurt airport, must remain at around -70 degrees C.

That requires car-sized containers which use dry ice to keep contents at stable, ultra-low temperatures.

They can do so for up to 120 hours without a power supply, long enough to reach far-flung destinations.

The EU recently agreed to buy 300 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, presaging a huge logistical operation, much of which will involve Frankfurt in the coming months.

Providing a single dose to the world’s nearly eight billion people would require 8,000 jumbo jets, the air transport association IATA estimated in September, adding that the cargo industry faces “its largest single transport challenge ever”.

Cargo planes can normally carry up to a million doses unless sub-zero temperatures must be maintained.

A study commissioned by DHL estimates that 15,000 flights would be necessary to transport 10 billion doses.

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