Parked passenger planes can help to get Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine off the ground

Custom-made boxes will be needed to store the solutions at temperatures of -80°C

Tail fins of Deutsche Lufthansa AG and Eurowings passenger aircraft on the tarmac at Munich Airport in Munich, Germany, on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Lufthansa rose yesterday on optimism a Covid-19 vaccine will soon be available to enable easing of travel restrictions. Photographer: Michaela Handrek-Rehle/Bloomberg
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Passenger jets will be able to transport coronavirus vaccines at the required ultra-low temperatures as long as they are stored in specially-made containers, according to Europe’s biggest cargo-only airline.

No plane, not even a purpose-built freighter, would otherwise be able to keep inoculations at the -80°C specified by Pfizer for its shot, according to Cargolux Airlines International chief executive Richard Forson. That would make shipment in custom-designed boxes the only viable option, he said on Thursday.

“The container itself can remain at ambient temperature because it’s protected on the inside,” he said in a London Aviation Club webinar, adding that capacity won’t be an issue. “All the passenger aircraft in the world will be mobilised to transport these vaccines,” he said.

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech delivered the most promising news yet about a potential Covid-19 vaccine earlier this week, when a study showed their shot prevented more than 90 per cent of symptomatic infections in the trial of tens of thousands of volunteers. While the product remains in clinical trials, attention is already turning to how a proven dose can be manufactured and transported at the quantities needed to inoculate most of the world.

One potential obstacle may be that bottlenecks appear elsewhere in the supply chain, Mr Forson said, since Pfizer has said the box carrying the vaccine will have only a 10-day lifespan. It can also be opened no more than twice for a maximum period of one minute at a time, he added.

“The shortest part of the lifespan of that vaccine is going to be on board our aircraft, and we are quite used to flying pharmaceuticals around,” he said. “The important thing is the last mile, getting it to the hospital or clinic where it’s going to be used.”

The best solution would be for the vaccine to be manufactured in as many locations as possible, “rather than producing billions and flying them around the world”, he said.

Even then, storage will be a huge challenge, according to Mr Forson, whose Luxembourg-based company operates a global warehousing and road-feeder network in addition its 30-strong fleet of Boeing 747 freighters.

“You have to have the cooling capacity,” he said. “In the West they can maybe afford to acquire such equipment. If you look at Africa, South America and other developing countries, you have to ask how they’re going to store it.”