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Vaccine logistics - KION supports vital supply chain

For just over a year, the world has been in the grip of coronavirus. Vaccines offering protection are the only way out. Fortunately, vaccines have now been developed but they need to be produced as quickly as possible and distributed worldwide to billions of people. A mammoth logistical task, placing huge demands on the entire process chain, from extremely short time windows for loading trucks and cargo planes to special temperature requirements and the highest hygiene standards. This is where the KION Group brand companies come into their own, playing their part in ensuring that the priceless vaccines are handled as quickly and smoothly as possible.


The first disturbing news from China of a new, highly-infectious virus aroused concerns at the beginning of 2020, initiating a global scientific race. The search for a vaccine had begun; pharmaceutical research came under the spotlight as never before. After months of research and development, continuous ongoing approval procedures around the world and a large-scale study involving 40,000 participants, Comirnaty (BNT162b2), the result of research collaboration between BioNTech and Pfizer, became the first vaccine to be approved for use in the EU on 21 December 2020. Just 279 days had passed between the announcement of the collaborative partnership and approval being granted. But this unique medical milestone was quickly followed by the next mammoth task: producing and distributing billions of doses of the vaccine throughout the world.

Ultra-clean intralogistics for Pfizer’s products

One of the sites where the mRNA vaccine is produced is in Puurs-Sint-Amands in Belgium. Work continues round the clock here to produce as much vaccine as possible. Because, after increasing the capacity of the Belgian production plant, BioNTech/Pfizer is now aiming to make two billion doses of its vaccine available this year. Handling the vaccine is extremely demanding; once the vaccine has been poured into vials under sterile conditions and packed, it is flash-frozen in ultra-low temperature freezers and stored in special dry ice containers. Throughout the entire production environment, the absolute priority is maintaining the maximum degree of hygiene. This is why the plant employs a fleet of electric forklift trucks sourced from STILL, a KION subsidiary company. Thanks to their powerful lithium-ion batteries, these forklift trucks are not only continuously available for three-shift working but, because they operate entirely emission-free, they meet every hygiene requirement. Moreover, maintenance-free and easy-to-clean lithium-ion technology emits no polluting battery gases or acids. Consequently, these forklifts offer the most suitable means of loading the thermal transportation boxes day and night into trucks which then carry the vaccine on the ‘just-in-time’ principle to every corner of the EU. So that the vaccine does not spoil, these reusable boxes can maintain the required temperature of -80 degrees Celsius for ten days with special sensors constantly checking the temperature.

Pfizer employs STILL forklifts.

Solid support for assured distribution within Switzerland

The available vaccine doses must, of course, be distributed as quickly as possible – a further challenge which each country is handling differently. In Switzerland the Swiss armed forces are responsible for distribution. For many years, they have relied on a fleet of some 150 forklift trucks supplied by the KION subsidiary, Linde Material Handling. The Swiss armed forces are overseeing the entire vaccine delivery chain within Switzerland. Supplier’s vehicles are met at the national border and escorted to the Swiss Armed Forces Logistics Base where quality control is carried out and the data loggers, which constantly monitor the vaccine’s temperature are, read out. The Linde forklifts transfer the loads into vehicles operated by the Armed Forces Pharmacy which has set aside freezers and deep cold storage areas especially for storing the vaccines. Specialist armed forces personnel then accept orders for vaccines submitted by the cantons, make them up into delivery consignments, constantly maintaining an unbroken cold chain, and deliver the orders to the cantonal hospitals, all the time using Linde Material Handling forklifts and warehouse trucks.

Linde MH forklifts support the vaccine distribution.

Reliable helpers for distributing pharmaceuticals

In neighboring Austria, too, vaccine distribution is being organized from Kwizda Pharmaceutical Wholesale’s central storage facility in Lower Austria. It was to here that the first 7,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine were delivered at the beginning of this year. Not only does Kwizda have sufficient storage capacity and appropriate temperature conditions, it can also boast comprehensive expertise in handling vaccines, a task undertaken with the aid of its numerous STILL electric forklifts and other warehouse trucks. 48 hours are needed to defrost the vaccines under closely monitored conditions, according to Thomas Brosch, managing director of Kwizda Pharmahandel and member of the board of management of PHAGO, the Austrian Association of Full-Line Pharmaceutical Wholesalers. While defrosting, the vaccines must not be exposed to any vibration; they then have to be delivered at a controlled temperature of between plus two and plus eight degrees. During this 48 hour period, the team at Kwizda contacts the local vaccination centers to find out precisely how much each center requires, where to deliver the vaccines and the contact person’s name. This is where precise arrangements and rapid processes are vital – because once the vaccine has been removed from the freezers, it cannot be re-frozen. STILL’s fleet of forklifts is on permanent standby, ready to handle the vaccines quickly and accurately, ensuring smooth processes and preventing these invaluable vaccines from exceeding their expiry date.

Reliable supplies of tests and other medical materials

Another important tool in containing the coronavirus pandemic are tests which offer rapid and reliable diagnosis. Because it remains as critically important as ever to identify infections as quickly as possible to prevent them from spreading further. One of the most significant suppliers both of PCR and rapid tests is Becton Dickinson (BD). Its comprehensive portfolio also includes the associated equipment for laboratory diagnosis as well as special catheters and syringes for administering medicines to COVID 19 patients with weakened immune systems who are being treated in intensive care units. So that all these essential items, currently being consumed in large quantities, reach the test centers, laboratories and hospitals without any hold-ups, BD also operates a state-of-the-art, automated Dematic distribution center. The logistics campus in Temse in Belgium consists of several partly temperature-controlled high-bay storage facilities with automated cranes and is capable of holding more than 100,000 pallets. The adjoining dispatch area, equipped with automated conveyor belts, operates 24 hours a day, five days a week, supplying Europe, the Middle East and Africa with vital medical materials.

The cargo airport’s highly-effective fleet

The importance of the role played by logistics in the global immunization campaign can also be seen at the Lufthansa Cargo facility at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. As manufacturers began to produce vaccines against coronavirus, the airport suddenly received an immense number of enquiries because only a very few airports possess the appropriate infrastructure for transporting vaccines. Only a short while before, Chicago O’Hare, supported by Lufthansa Cargo and DB Schenker, had made a huge investment in storage capacity for pharma logistics and had established permanently monitored cold storage areas. Furthermore, the airport is equipped with a large fleet of Linde Material Handling’s lithium-ion forklift trucks which meet the demanding hygiene requirements. The fleet can boast high availability – an extremely important feature since there can be no delays when loading the aircraft. Within a tightly-timed schedule, only 2.5 hours are available for each plane. This represents a very narrow window because the aircraft are not really designed for this type of freight and positioning the pallets within the planes poses particular challenges for the ground staff. It is here that the reliable Linde forklift trucks play an important supporting role in the truest sense of those words because, in the worst case, any delay could lead to the plane not taking off on time and, as a result, to whole pallets of vaccine being classified as unusable. But the fleet and the cargo center staff are giving their all – every day dispatching up to ten million doses of vaccine to recipients throughout the whole world.

Linde MH electric forklifts at Chicago airport.