German knowhow set to play leading role in coronavirus fight


The German company BioNTech has gained worldwide attention for its work in creating the first coronavirus vaccine. But outside the spotlight, other German groups will also play an outsized role in bringing that shot to the world.

Schott and Gerresheimer, two glassmakers, have been ramping up production of the special vials that will contain the vaccine, while Va-Q-Tec is churning out the insulated containers needed to ship it around the globe. Their work highlights another role German companies excel in: filling obscure but crucial niches in the world market.

“It sounds simple, because we make so many of them. But it’s not so easy to make these vials in the right quality, with the right materials,” said Dietmar Siemssen, chairman of the Düsseldorf-based Gerresheimer, which began as a glassblowing company in 1864 and now has 10,000 employees worldwide. “There are not so many players in the world that are really capable of doing this.”

Gerresheimer’s vials are made of borosilicate glass — highly prized in pharmaceuticals, heavy industry and kitchenware production for its robustness and resistance to thermal shocks. It was developed in the 19th century in the German city of Jena by the founder of today’s Schott.

In the early summer, when health officials first raised the alarm about potential bottlenecks in the production of packaging, Schott and Gerresheimer teamed up with Italian rival Stevanato to issue an unusual joint statement, assuring the world that they could meet increased demand. 

“The good thing is that all the big glass and packaging providers invested huge amounts in expanding production even before the pandemic,” said Salvatore Ruggiero, a Schott spokesman. Schott alone unveiled a $1bn investment programme for its pharma division last year — the biggest in its history. The company expects to provide containers for some 2bn doses of the vaccine.

German companies not only dominate the market in glass vials — they also make the specialist containers that will be critical for distributing the new vaccine. The messenger RNA technology used in Pfizer-BioNTech’s shot requires ultra-cold storage, which means it must be stored at temperatures of minus 70C or below — a tall order for countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Va-Q-Tec, based in the Bavarian city of Würzburg, says it has the solution. It produces “thermo-boxes” made of “vacuum insulation panels” which it says are up to ten times more effective than traditional thermal insulation materials like polystyrene and fibreglass. Demand is expected to soar: a recent study by DHL said that 15m coolers would be needed to transport 10bn doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine worldwide. 

BioNTech lab
The German company BioNTech has gained worldwide attention for its work in creating the first coronavirus vaccine © BioNTech

Joachim Kuhn, Va-Q-Tec’s founder and chief executive, said the company was involved in more than a dozen different vaccine projects globally, many of which would need to be stored at very low temperatures. “Demand is strong, and we are working at full blast to meet it,” he said.

Maintaining production, let alone increasing it, was a struggle at a time when the companies had to protect their factories from outbreaks of the same pandemic their products aim to quell. 

Gerresheimer, with 37 plants around the world, formed a crisis committee to manage and study the pandemic’s impact on each factory — from navigating lockdowns that blocked truck shipments in India, to testing 600 employees in one day at a plant in Germany.

The company learnt how to isolate teams to protect them from outbreaks, while at the same time increasing shifts and staffing. Old machines meant to be replaced by newer lines were instead kept on, boosting production for the anticipated vaccine.

“We are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.

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He expects that Gerresheimer will provide 2.5 to 3bn extra vials for the coronavirus vaccine, roughly a third of global demand.

Gerresheimer has received orders from all the potential coronavirus vaccine producers, Mr Siemmsen said, and he anticipates that another vaccine candidate could emerge in the coming months.

Already expanding before the pandemic, both Schott and Gerresheimer now look set to grow even faster. Schott has opened new production lines in India and China and is also investing in facilities in Germany and the US. Gerresheimer aims to invest more than €80m in further glass forming lines next year.

Schott, Gerresheimer and Va-Q-Tec are rare examples of companies that have gained a boost from a pandemic that has plunged other sectors like aerospace and travel into crisis. Va-Q-Tec saw a big increase in sales of its containers earlier this year because they were ideal for shipping coronavirus test kits.

“In the spring we transported more than half of all the test kits that were distributed internationally,” said Mr Kuhn. “We sent more than 20m of them to Brazil alone.”

As a result, the company’s revenues grew by 13 per cent to €53m in the first nine months of 2020, and its share price has risen fivefold since the pandemic began.

Va-Q-Tec is a typical example of the Mittelstand — the small and medium-sized companies that are the backbone of Germany’s economy, often making specialised products that enjoy huge export success.

Progress on the vaccine front, Mr Kuhn said, has given a huge boost to business confidence in Germany. “It shows just how innovative the German Mittelstand is.”

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