Cold journey of the corona vaccine: DHL swears by dry ice and "Ulf"

Biontech, Pfizer, Moderna – the first vaccines in the fight against the coronavirus are close. But after their approval and production, some have to be stored at minus 70 degrees until they are injected. DHL is therefore expanding its "Ulf" supply.

It is the glimmer of hope in the fight against the corona pandemic. The German company Biontech, together with the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, has developed a vaccine against the virus that will soon be used. The preparation from the US company Moderna is also about to be approved. If the authorities give the green light, the vaccines only have to get to the people in the vaccination centers.

Transport at such low temperatures is only possible with protective clothing, as the German company Va-Q-Tec from Würzburg shows.

(Photo: REUTERS)

This is a Herculean task for the logistics industry. The industry expects ten billion vaccine doses to be sent in the next two years. Most of the business will be handled by Fedex, UPS, Kuehne + Nagel and, of course, the Deutsche Post subsidiary DHL. "We are in the hot phase of preparations. That means, on the one hand, we are talking to the manufacturers, and on the other hand, of course, with governments and NGOs in order to get this vaccine to the people in good time," says Katja Busch, Chief Commercial Officer at DHL , in the ntv podcast "Learned again".

The crux of the transport is the cooling of the vaccines. The preparation from Biontech and Pfizer must be stored at at least minus 70 degrees before it can be administered to humans. It's not that cold even in the Arctic. DHL has therefore already bought hundreds of so-called ultra-freezers. Katja Busch explains that this has been a positive experience – for example in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, where they operate a center for pharmaceutical logistics. "There are refrigerators that we call 'Ulf'. These are ultra-low freezers. They can ensure such temperatures." 58 such ultra-freezers are in use not far from the German border, and DHL has already bought several hundred more for the Corona challenge.

Cooling at minus 70 degrees

On the plane and on the truck, the preparations are transported in plastic boxes with dry ice, i.e. frozen CO2. "Then the packaging is opened and new dry ice comes in. That shouldn't be a problem either, because there is enough dry ice and enough packaging," says DHL manager Busch. They are currently even working on a concept of how this packaging can be returned. "Because it cannot be that millions of expensive thermal packaging end up on the trash somewhere."

However, dry ice falls under the Hazardous Goods Ordinance, which is why there are weight restrictions on the aircraft. But Katja Busch does not fear a bottleneck. It relies on close collaboration with airlines, other logistics giants and governments. "Nobody can do this project alone, it's just too big and too demanding for that." It is primarily a matter of knowing as soon as possible from the governments how the "vaccinations are carried out". Only then could the logisticians "go into fine planning", says the logistics expert. "We currently have scenarios on paper, now we need information from the countries. But I am confident that this will happen in the next few weeks and that we can actually start vaccinations in the first quarter of next year."


Katja Busch is Chief Commercial Officer at DHL.

(Photo: DHL)

The other logistics giants also share this optimism. It is said of UPS that they have an eye on the great demand for vaccine transport and are preparing accordingly. Fedex says it is "well positioned" and "is working with manufacturers, distribution centers and authorities to meet this logistics challenge." The logistics experts at Kuehne + Nagel also have "solutions" at hand for transporting preparations even at extremely low temperatures.

These "solutions" are provided by various companies, including the German company Va-Q-Tec from Würzburg. The listed company manufactures thermal containers and recently announced an agreement with a "top global pharmaceutical manufacturer". Mecotec also senses big business. The small company from Saxony-Anhalt describes itself as the market leader in the refrigerated container sector.

German medium-sized companies benefit

Another German medium-sized company is expecting high sales with the laboratory equipment supplier Binder. The company from Tuttlingen in Baden-Württemberg builds the "Ulfs" that DHL uses. "Multi-stage refrigeration systems are built into it, which are able to bring the temperature level to minus 90 degrees. The second strong property is a kind of super insulation. This means that the cabinet is at room temperature on the outside, but it can be negative inside 90 degrees ", explains CEO and company founder Peter Michael Binder, how an ultra-low freezer differs from the classic freezer.


Peter Michael Binder in front of an ultra-low temperature refrigerator.

(Photo: Binder GmbH)

Around 40,000 vaccination doses fit in a cabinet of the laboratory equipment supplier. With several million vaccine doses needed only in Germany, a lot of them have to be used, the 450 employees at Binder have their hands full. In the past few weeks, the production output has increased by more than 200 percent, says the company boss. "The whole story has developed a colossal dynamic. We get countless calls and e-mails, where the only thing that really matters is when and how many such freezers can be had."

In the long term, however, Binder expects the demand situation to normalize. It therefore makes no sense to expand the company. "We won't be planning a new factory to manufacture even more devices there, and then Corona will be over in two or three years. Instead, we are now doing everything that increases production figures with a relatively short-term effect. I assume that it will the situation will calm down from the third quarter of 2021. "

Also because, for example, the vaccine from Moderna, unlike the Biontech Pfizer preparation, does not have to be stored and transported in extremely freezing temperatures. And there are many other vaccines in the works. The more the better – the logisticians are prepared.

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. (tagsToTranslate) Economy (t) DHL (t) Biontech (t) Pfizer (t) Corona vaccine (t) Vaccination (t) Kuehne & Nagel (t) UPS (t) FedEx (t) Logistics (t) Corona crisis