Keep cool: Germany preps vaccine drive as COVID cases hit 1M

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File -- In this Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020 file photo an employee of Binder, the world's largest manufacturer of serial-production environmental simulation chambers for scientific or industrial laboratories, checks an ultra low temperature freezer in Tuttlingen, Germany. Germany prepares for the vaccination of the German population during the upcoming month. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, file)

TUTTLINGEN – Hulking gray boxes are rolling off the production line at a factory in the southern town of Tuttlingen, ready to be shipped to the front in the next phase of Germany's battle against the coronavirus as it became the latest country to hit the milestone of 1 million confirmed cases Friday.

Man-sized freezers such as those manufactured by family-owned firm Binder GmbH could become a key part of the vast immunization program the German government is preparing to roll out when the first vaccines become available next month.

That's because one of the front-runners in the race for a vaccine is BioNTech, a German company that together with U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has developed a shot it says is up to 96% effective in trials but comes with a small hitch: it needs to be cooled to minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit) for shipping and storage.

Ensuring such temperatures, colder even than an Antarctic winter, is just one of the many challenges that countries face in trying to get their populations immunized.

The effort has been compared to a military operation. Indeed some countries, including Germany, are relying on military and civilian expertise to ensure the precious doses are safely transported from manufacturing plants to secret storage facilities, before being distributed.

Germany has benefited from the market power that comes with being a member of the European Union. The 27-nation bloc’s executive Commission — led by former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen — has spearheaded negotiations with vaccine makers, ordering more than a billion doses so far.

German officials have said the country hopes to secure up to 300 million doses from the EU orders and bilateral deals with three manufacturers in Germany, including BioNTech and CureVac, a company based in Tuebingen that says its vaccine can be stored at regular refrigerator temperatures for up to three months. Its trials are not as far along, however, as Pfizer/BioNTech and others.

The figure of 300 million is contingent on all vaccines being developed making it to market. That would be more than enough to immunize Germany's population of 83 million, even if two shots are required, as seems likely.