Brussels pharma centre

Never too cold, never too hot

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A vast new cargo warehouse at Brussels Airport ensures healthcare products always remain at the correct temperatures.

Healthcare products don't like changes in temperature. Human blood products such as red blood cells, platelets or plasma are particularly sensitive. Should they get too warm, bacteria can form, which risks causing fatal septic shock in patients receiving transfusions. Should they get too cold, they can release haemoglobin, causing fever, jaundice, even death.

And blood isn't the only healthcare product vulnerable to changes in temperature. Vaccines, insulin, and human tissue and organs, for example, can be rendered useless if their storage temperature rises or drops too much.

Even simple medicines are at threat. According to the International Institute of Refrigeration, nine of the top 10 best-selling medicines used around the world are sensitive to temperature.

So, for the pharmaceutical industry, news that a huge, temperature-controlled warehouse has just opened at Brussels Airport is very welcome indeed.

Called the Pharma Center, and operated by Swissport International, one of the world's leading air cargo handling companies, it offers 3,620 square metres of drive-in warehouse space, allowing sensitive medicines, pharmaceuticals and organic products to be transferred seamlessly from lorries to aircraft cargo holds, and vice versa. Among the larger pharmaceutical companies already using the facility are GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Marken.

Pharmaceutical cargo is temperature-controlled from the second it enters our facility until it is loaded in the aircraft cargo hold.

Stijn Vandroogenbroek, Swissport

Inside the warehouse, there are two distinct storage areas with different temperature ranges, depending on which products are to be stored. A thousand square metres of space is air-conditioned to between two and eight degrees centigrade, while a further 2,620 square metres is maintained at between 15 and 25 degrees.

The facilities here can handle a gargantuan amount of cargo. On arrival at the airport, lorry drivers are able to park in specially designed bays and transfer their cargo quickly and seamlessly without subjecting it to damaging temperatures. Meanwhile an army of fork-lift trucks, cargo scales, caster decks and pallet movers ensure the process is as efficient as possible.

“As a truck opens its doors and pharmaceutical goods are being unloaded, all of this is already happening in the appropriately temperature-controlled area,” explains Stijn Vandroogenbroek from Swissport. “This is an essential element of what we call the end-to-end cool chain. Pharmaceutical cargo is temperature-controlled from the second it enters our facility until it is loaded in the aircraft cargo hold.”

For Swissport, this is the latest facility in a cargo empire which operates all over the world. In 2018 (the latest figures available) the Switzerland-based but Chinese-owned company handled around 4.8 million tonnes of air freight in 115 cargo warehouses worldwide, 72 of them temperature-controlled. It employs 66,000 staff and enjoys an operating revenue of 2.99 billion euros. In the summer of 2019 it was active at 310 airports in 49 countries on six continents.

The company explains how their new Brussels Airport centre is part of a Belgian industry sector that has been christened Pharma Valley.

“Pharma Valley is a term to indicate the thriving pharmaceutical industry in Belgium,” Vandroogenbroek adds. “It encompasses the research, production and logistics processes that surround that industry here. For many years Belgian policy makers, business leaders and also Brussels Airport have been working on creating a strong foothold for the pharmaceutical industry here. The Pharma Center represents another link in this chain.”

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