13 Nov 2020 16:39 IST

Vaccine is inexact bonus for freight and freezers

Super-freezers become the new growth industry as Pfizer’s shots must be kept at ultra-low temperatures

Every challenge is also a business opportunity. Rolling out a potential Covid-19 vaccine is no exception. The shots developed by US drugmaker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, which clinical trials have shown to be highly effective at preventing coronavirus, must be transported and stored at temperatures of minus-70 degrees Celsius or below. The daunting task for authorities eager to quickly deliver billions of doses across the world is a potential boon for those making freezers and handling freight.

Storage predicament

Authorities have overcome a similar conundrum before. The vaccine developed to fight the Ebola epidemic also required storage at ultra-low temperatures, yet doctors managed to successfully deploy it in multiple African countries. The challenge of preventing Covid-19 is much larger, however. DHL, the logistics arm of Deutsche Post, reckons the world will handle about 10 billion doses of various coronavirus vaccines by the end of 2021. An estimated 3 billion of these will use the novel messenger RNA technology that requires ultra-cold storage. Transporting the entire load could involve 15,000 flights and 15 million special cooling boxes.

This medical mission represents a windfall for companies involved in storing and delivering the vaccine. Companies that make super-cold freezers started to prepare months back. Thermo King, an American cold transport pioneer which is part of $34 billion Trane Technologies, has enhanced its super-freezers to safely move the Covid-19 vials by truck from airports to hospitals. Makers of gases for extreme cold conditions and dry ice could also see extra demand for their products. Shares in France’s Air Liquide’s are up 10 per cent this month; rival Linde has gained 16 per cent.

Delivery challenge

Freight companies are another piece of the vaccine puzzle. Kuehne+Nagel, the $25 billion Swiss logistics group, said in September it had opened two temperature-controlled facilities in Brussels and Johannesburg in anticipation of the increased demand for vaccine distribution. DHL, which has some 9,000 staff trained to deal with sensitive medical transport, and rivals FedEx and United Parcel Service are also limbering up.

The trickiest question to answer is how long the rush will last. If one or two jabs provide permanent immunity from Covid-19, then the delivery challenge — like the vaccine itself — will be a one-off. If people need regular booster shots, then super-cold freezers and freight could be a new growth industry.