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An-124 super freighter delivers machinery for US vaccine fill plant

Nexus Pharmaceuticals to bottle COVID vaccines until supply shortages subside

A crate of machinery for making vaccines is unloaded from an An-124 freighter operated by Volga-Dnepr Airlines (Photo: DB Schenker)

A massive piece of machinery that can produce up to 30 million doses of COVID vaccine per month, and help alleviate production bottlenecks, landed Saturday at Chicago Rockford International Airport on a specialized cargo jet.

The flight was operated by Russian all-cargo carrier Volga-Dnepr Airlines, Zachary Oakley, deputy director of operations and planning at the Greater Rockford Airport Authority, confirmed. 

The vaccine filling machine and isolator were delivered to a plant being built by Nexus Pharmaceuticals in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. Once the production line is operational, bottles filled by the machine could be distributed in the U.S. and internationally, the company says.

DB Schenker, a large German-based logistics provider, said it chartered the An-124 airlifter for Nexus because the 82 ton-shipment from Germany couldn’t fit on a regular all-cargo aircraft. With a length of nearly 230 feet, two internal cranes, and front-and-rear ramps, the super freighter is well suited for out-of-gauge cargo. But DB Schenker said its decision to utilize the four-engine An-124 was based on the size of the cargo — 14,126 cubic feet — rather than its weight. 

The equipment, manufactured by Bausch + Stroebel and Franz Ziel, was split into 20 boxes with a dimensional weight of 8.3 tons each and flown from Frankfurt-Hahn airport. The load was so heavy, in fact, that DB Schenker put 15 tons of equipment on its weekly scheduled charter flight from Munich to Rockford. 

After the arrival of both flights, DB Schenker arranged for the equipment to be trucked to the Pleasant Prairie site. 

Nexus representatives could not be reached for additional details. COVID vaccine maker Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) also has a freezer farm in Pleasant Prairie.

Nexus Pharmaceuticals said Bausch + Stroebel began design and fabrication of the sterile filling machine years before the pandemic. The custom filling machine isolators, made by Franz Ziel, are designed to enclose the filling, stoppering and capping operations of a powder or liquid filling machine while providing an aseptic environment. Once there is enough COVID vaccine supply, the line will be used for filling Nexus’ specialty and generic injectable products into vials. The drugs are used in areas such as anesthesia, oncology, cardiovascular care and neurology.

The first phase of the $250 million facility is nearing completion, with commercial production expected to commence in 2022 following U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, Nexus announced on March 23.

Pharma production capacity

U.S. regulators on Tuesday stopped issuing vaccines made by Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) so they can review reports that six people who received the drug had blood clots. Prior to that, 15 million doses were ruined by a contractor making the J&J vaccine at a plant in Baltimore. The mix-up led the Department of Health and Human Services to order J&J to assume full responsibility for production at the Emergent BioSolutions facility.

“Nexus Pharmaceuticals is keenly aware of the need for an increase in global vaccine production capabilities and as such has aggressively taken steps to address the situation. The filling line and associated isolator represent critical pieces and their arrival is the culmination of Nexus’ commitment to addressing medical needs during the pandemic. Nexus’ investment with DB Schenker’s tremendous support was instrumental in the fast-tracking of the commissioning of our state-of-the-art sterile pharmaceutical manufacturing facility,” said John Cook, vice president of manufacturing operations, in a press release.

The coronavirus crisis brought into stark relief the limited amount of pharmaceutical production capability in the U.S. Immediately after taking office, President Joe Biden ordered his staff to assess the nation’s availability of pandemic response supplies, and the ability to quickly produce and distribute tests and vaccines at scale. He also invoked the Defense Production Act, which gives the government power to order companies to manufacture products in the national interest. 

Agencies are supposed to deliver to the White House this summer a strategy for developing a long-term capability to manufacture supplies for future pandemics and biological threats. 

According to the FDA, 80% of active pharmaceutical ingredients in medications and 40% of generic prescription drugs sold in the U.S. are foreign-made. The agency currently lists more than 100 drug shortages, mostly for cheap, injectable drugs. Nearly half of the 40 drugs needed to treat COVID-19 patients experienced shortages in 2020, according to an analysis of FDA data by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. And more than two-thirds of the top-selling brand name drugs sold in U.S. pharmacies are manufactured outside the country, said in 2017.

Rockford Airport, located about 70 miles west of Chicago O’Hare airport, is rapidly growing as an auxiliary cargo hub, spearheaded by integrated logistics providers UPS and Amazon Air. DB Schenker is scheduled late this year to take occupancy of a new airside facility at Rockford to handle its mushrooming charter operation.

The Volga-Dnepr flight required special permission from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is routinely granted. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]