SCHIPHOL AIRPORT, Netherlands (Reuters) – In cavernous cold-storage warehouses at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, KLM workers are gearing up for a surge next year in COVID-19 vaccine cargos that will need to be flown around the world at ultra-low temperatures.
A major hub for pharmaceutical products, Schiphol has already handled some of the vaccines being used in trials and KLM’s boss is confident its “cold chain” operations will cope with the influx of cargos as mass inoculations start in earnest.
“The short and sweet of it is, yes, we’re ready,” KLM Chief Executive Pieter Elbers told Reuters. “Obviously both for societies and our industry it’s of paramount importance to have these vaccines distributed at the quickest possible pace.”
While no COVID-19 vaccine has yet been approved by U.S. or European regulators, the shot developed by Pfizer and BioNTech is the most advanced in the process and could be ready for rapid production and distribution next month.
But it needs to be stored and shipped at minus 70 degrees Celsius while Moderna’s candidate has to be kept at -20C, at least until the drugs have reached their destinations where they can survive in normal fridges for short periods.
Allowed behind strict security at Schiphol on Wednesday, Reuters watched Air France-KLM staff prepare four so-called active containers for a shipment of chilled pharmaceuticals bound for Toronto in Canada.
Wearing thick blue gloves, workers topped up dry ice in other active containers, which also have a battery-powered electrical refrigeration system and an array of sensors to ensure products stay within their target range, as low as -20C.
“Schiphol will, for sure, be one of the major airports for the vaccines,” said Marcel Kuijn, global head of pharmaceutical logistics for Air France-KLM Cargo.
“Our market share on the routes we fly is 10% to 20%, that’s in our regular pharma business, so we expect to get at least that part of the vaccine distribution,” he told Reuters.
Pfizer’s vaccine is transported at -80C in small cool boxes holding about 5,000 doses which must be kept packed in dry ice until shortly before use. Moderna’s candidate is suitable for the larger “active” containers which can take 30,000 doses.
The vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University is stable at normal fridge temperatures of 2C to 8C so it has more transport options.
Kuijn estimated that while vaccines will begin and end their journeys in refrigerated trucks, at least 30% will be flown to their destinations.
Schiphol is the second biggest hub for pharmaceutical products in Europe after Frankfurt so it is expected to be both a staging ground for vaccines from India, Italy or the United States, and a departure point for vaccines made in Europe.
Some other vaccines being developed in China are also stable in normal fridges and Kuijn reckons only a minority COVID-19 shots will need to be transported frozen.
Air France-KLM currently operates 537 flights a week to about 100 destination in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas. It is likely that Franco-Dutch airline will be a major carrier to African countries, given its network.
Kuijn said bottlenecks at Schiphol were unlikely, and while containers would be in high demand, he did not expect shortages as different vaccines will come available at different times.
“The first ones will probably come in December, January, and from there on new vaccines will be approved,” he said.
The KLM Cargo warehouse at Schiphol has four cold storage areas for pharmaceuticals and a fifth will be ready in January.
“The bigger containers can carry up to 30,000 doses of the vaccine,” said Paul Crombach, program manager of KLM’s “cool chain” programme and the head of the team preparing for the mass transport of COVID-19 vaccines.
“We knew we’re going to have to transport a lot of the vaccine … but we have space as you can see,” he said, gesturing to the vast warehouse behind him decked out with conveyor belts and robotic lifting arms.
Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by David Clarke