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HEALTH

German airport prepares to transport millions of Covid vaccines

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.

German airport prepares to transport millions of Covid vaccines
Cargo is loaded into a Lufthansa Cargo aircraft at Frankfurt Airport, in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on November 25, 2020: AFP

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

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

Employees stand next to stacks with Lufthansa Cargo containers at the Lufthansa Cargo Pharma Hub, at Frankfurt Airport, in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on November 25, 2020. Thomas Lohnes / AFP

Krestan, who uses her skills as a former nurse, is sure her team is ready for the task. “The processes have been established, we're very confident and we feel well prepared,” she said.

In fact, Max Philipp Conrady, head of freight infrastructure at Fraport, told AFP: “We've been ready since August”.

Max Philipp Conrady, head of freight infrastructure at airport operator Fraport, poses in front of special cooling containers whose temperature can be regulated from minus 20 degrees Celsius to 30 degrees plus, at Frankfurt Airport, in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on November 25, 2020. Thomas Lohnes / AFP

Keeping cool

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.

It has 12,000 square metres (129,000 square feet) of temperature-controlled warehouses, essential for storing medicines.

About 8,000 square metres (86,000 square feet), around the size of a football field, handles Lufthansa cargo alone, Krestan said.

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

The manager of the Lufthansa Pharma Hub at Frankfurt Airport stands in front of a cargo of measles vaccine from India in a temperature-controlled hangar at about 5 degrees Celcius at Frankfurt Airport, in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on November 25, 2020.  Thomas Lohnes / AFP

Frankfurt has 2,000 square metres (21,500 square feet) of cold storage, Krestan said, set at two to eight degrees Celsius (36 to 47 degrees Fahrenheit), 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.

Some vaccines, such as one produced by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, can be shipped at normal refrigerator temperatures.

But Pfizer's, developed at the BioNTech lab in Mainz, around 20km (12 miles) from the Frankfurt airport, must remain at around -70 degrees C (-94 F).

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 manager of the Lufthansa Pharma Hub at Frankfurt Airport closes the door of a refrigerated container with dry ice at Frankfurt Airport, in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on November 25, 2020.  Thomas Lohnes / AFP

Flight capacity

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.

While the airport has the capacity to handle the extra-cold freight, Krestan noted that flight capacity will be a major factor in the pace of distribution.

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.

Cargo is loaded into a Lufthansa Cargo aircraft at Frankfurt Airport, in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on November 25, 2020. Thomas Lohnes / AFP

Adding to the challenge, 40 percent of annual global air cargo is typically carried by passenger aircraft, which have been vastly curtailed due to the pandemic.

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

Fraport is in communication with manufacturers “to see how we can optimise traffic”, Conrady said.

A lot rides on the operation's success, especially at hubs such as Frankfurt. Without swift and global inoculations, the air transport sector will lack the passenger numbers it needs to stay aloft.

READ ALSO: Germany says coronavirus vaccinations could 'start before end of year'

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COVID-19

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany. 

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