Breakfast, freezers, Lego: on the vaccine trail in Germany

It was at breakfast on the wintry morning of January 24th that Ozlem Tureci and her husband Ugur Sahin decided "we have to fire the starting weapon at it".
Sahin "had concluded from a publication describing coronavirus cases in Wuhan that there was a high probability that a pandemic was imminent," said Tureci.
The decision of the couple, founders of a small German company called BioNTech, spawned Operation Lightspeed, in which the company's scientists diverted all resources from cancer therapy research to finding a vaccine against Covid-19.
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"Since that day ... there hasn't been a day that we've taken a break from working on this project," said Tureci.
Four days later, on January 28, Germany confirmed its first case of coronavirus infection - also the first known human-to-human transmission on European soil.
What was an epidemic that hit China hardest soon turned into a global health crisis, forcing governments to close borders, schools and offices, and keep their people at home to stop the spread.
When BioNTech and other pharmaceutical companies became active in the search for the formula for success, the German army of "medium-sized" companies and other larger manufacturing and logistics experts would soon prove crucial.
- Genie -
Only a few minutes by car from the headquarters of BioNTech in Mainz, such a company has quietly ramped up production.
Little known to the rest of the world, 130-year-old Schott is a major player in the pharmaceutical industry because of its small glass vials for life-saving vaccines.
Three quarters of the more than 100 coronavirus vaccination attempts worldwide would use Schott products.
The company alone wants to produce enough vials by the end of 2021 to hold two billion doses of a coronavirus vaccine, communications manager Christina Rettig told AFP.
Schott himself feared the virus at an early stage in his Bavarian plant in Mitterteich.
The city became one of Germany's first coronavirus hotspots in March after a beer festival, and Rettig said several Scottish workers from the Czech Republic had "seen no friends and family for weeks" when the borders were slammed.
- Freight increases -
Since most of the passenger flights were suspended, the mood at the terminals at Frankfurt Airport almost disappeared in the spring.
However, its hold continued to hum. Tens of thousands of boxes with much-needed surgical gowns and masks went through.
The head of freight infrastructure at Fraport, Max Philipp Conrady, knew that this was just the beginning of his division in the pandemic.
Back then, nobody knew which company would find a vaccine or when it would be ready, but Frankfurt is already Europe's largest hub for the transport of pharmaceutical goods.
So planning had to begin for the unprecedented logistical challenge of moving millions of life-saving vaccine doses around the world.
In 2019, 120,000 tons of vaccines, medicines and other pharmaceutical products were processed in Fraport's huge temperature-controlled hangar.
The operator anticipated the demand for cold storage rooms and increased investment in refrigerated high-tech dollies that would transport hangars to aircraft. It now has 20 so that multiple freighters can be loaded at the same time.
- cold is hot -
Fraport wasn't the only one investing more in solutions to keep things cool.
When it became clear that BioNTech's vaccine had to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, the cold chain management know-how became the next hot commodity in town.
In the midst of the global struggle to solve the problem of keeping vaccines at the correct temperature in transit around the world, there seems to be a German company for every obscure application.
Binder in Tuttlingen has its "super freezers" that were tapped back in March to cool coronaviruses that were used in laboratory research by BioNTech and another German vaccine developer, CureVac.
However, demand continued to grow as BioNTech advanced in the race.
"It really started in August when we got these inquiries from logistics companies ... they knew we had to equip our cold store ... with freezers to distribute the vaccines around the world," said Anne Lenze, spokeswoman for Binder .
While Binder ensured static cooling of up to minus 90 degrees, another company, Va-Q-Tec, manufactures moving boxes with an ultra-cool function for the actual transport process.
With the help of silica particle technology, the containers can maintain temperatures from a refrigerator to polar heat sinks for up to 10 days, "without the need for energy," Managing Director Joachim Kuhn told AFP.
On November 18, BioNTech and its partner Pfizer finally announced that their Phase III study showed around 95 percent effectiveness against the virus.
The news euphorized the stock markets and was hailed as a watershed, a light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel.
Until then, the logistics industry was on the advance.
As Fraports Conrady put it: "We have been ready since August."
- 'Champagne is not our thing' -
The BioNTech founders celebrated in a low-key way, knowing that it was too early to rest on their laurels.
"Champagne is not our thing. We sat down and enjoyed a cup of tea and used the time to think about what had happened so far and what will come next," Sahin told AFP.
Several hundred kilometers away in the German capital, 66-year-old Albrecht Broemme placed a few Lego figures here and there as he imagined how Berlin's old airports could be transformed into centers for the unprecedented vaccination campaign.
Broemme, a former firefighter and former head of the THW disaster control agency, had been called out of retirement to help with the pandemic.
From an early age he played a key role in the design of emergency centers in the event that the number of patients should rise beyond hospital capacities.
He was tapped again in the autumn to plan the vaccination campaign for the German capital.
"I developed a system and thought about how many (vaccination) booths we would need and how much space we would need to avoid bottlenecks," he said.
Each visitor follows a set path from registration to the actual stitch, then to a consultation with a doctor and finally to a waiting room while the final checks are carried out.
The patient should be in and out of the doctor's cubicle in a few minutes, Broemme said. Including the queue and waiting time, "let's imagine this will all take an hour."
- 1,100 questions -
On December 2, BioNTech's vaccine was the first to be approved for use in the West when the UK approved.
When other nations followed suit, from the US to Saudi Arabia to Singapore, Germany impatiently urged the EU drug regulators to bring their decision forward from December 29th.
The EMA gave the green light more than a week earlier on December 21.
That same night, the European Commission announced that the entire bloc would start the vaccination operation on Sunday, December 27th.
When the vaccine doses arrived across Europe on Saturday, Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn called it a "day of hope" but warned that it would be a "long-distance" effort to vaccinate everyone.
With the first impending bumps, the officials ran to put the finishing touches on the makeshift vaccination centers across Germany.
In the largest land in the country in Hamburg, doctors can perform 7,000 thrusts a day.
BioNTech has also hosted webinars for nurses and doctors who will be administering the shot shortly. 1,100 questions were answered during the meetings.
Vaccine trucks were rolled out at Pfizer's Belgian factory on Wednesday.
BioNTech announced that it would ship its vaccines directly to 25 federal agency-occupied sales locations in Germany, which would then route the allocations to 294 counties.
Local authorities will then forward the shocks to 450 vaccination centers.
A number of mobile units are also used in hard-to-reach districts.
With a view to possible sabotage by a growing wave of corona skeptics and anti-Vaxxers, the federal police escorted the precious cargo in motion with armed commandos.
First and foremost is the most vulnerable person in retirement homes, some of whom have been hit by fatal outbreaks of the virus.
The vaccinations couldn't come early enough for Germany, which recorded a record daily death toll of nearly 1,000 people during the week. At least one district has reported that its crematorium is full.
For Chancellor Angela Merkel, every shock means a life saved.
"When we see how many people die from coronavirus, we can see how many lives the vaccine can save."
bur-hmn / dlc / bmm / erc

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