By John Miller
ZURICH (Reuters) - Moderna Inc's COVID-19 vaccine, fresh off European approval on Wednesday, must make a long, continent-crossing journey from the Swiss Alps to Spain, France and Belgium before final delivery to the EU's 27 countries.
With few of its own factories, U.S.-based Moderna is reliant on partners -- big contract manufacturers, long-haul truckers, even military recruits enlisted to guard vaccines in secret warehouses -- to get shots to more than 400 million Europeans desperate for pandemic relief.
Logistics company Kuehne + Nagel also confirmed to Reuters on Wednesday it has been contracted by Moderna to handle worldwide air-and-road logistics for its European vaccine production from the Swiss company's Belgian vaccines hub.
Moderna said in a statement it will start the European rollout next week, after a limited U.S. start last month with some 20 million doses. It marks the latest phase in global efforts to halt COVID-19's spread.
In contrast to Moderna's reliance on contractors, Pfizer and BioNTech began shipping their COVID-19 vaccine in December from their own factories in Germany, Belgium and United States to Britain, then Europe and America.
Officials are hopeful delivery of Moderna's shots, which unlike Pfizer-BioNTech's don't have to be stored at challenging minus 70 degrees Celsius temperatures, will see easier sailing in the region where the roll-out in the first week has been patchy, with some countries mired in red tape and others struggling to get shots into arms. They acknowledge though that early shipments will be limited.
Stephane Bancel, Moderna's chief executive, has been taking lessons from early U.S. shipments, to fine-tune the process.
"We are learning what's working, what's not working," Bancel said at a Goldman Sachs event on Tuesday, before European approval. "There has never been such an incredible...mass vaccination like this, ever."
The European Commission has ordered 160 million Moderna shots, enough to vaccinate 80 million people, though Moderna did not respond to questions about how many doses are immediately available.
Moderna has boosted its 2021 target to at least 600 million worldwide, and last month inked a contract with Sweden's Recipharm for production at a site in France to boost capacity for deliveries outside the United States.
For Europe-bound vaccines, Moderna this year enlisted Swiss contract drug manufacturer Lonza to make active vaccine ingredients at three new production lines in Visp, Switzerland.
The lines, costing 70 million Swiss francs ($80 million) each and due to supply a combined 300 million doses annually, are not yet producing vaccine, though the first line could become operational within days.
A Lonza site in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with 100 million doses annual capacity, began large-scale production last year for U.S.-bound Moderna vaccine.
Lonza did start producing smaller-scale batches for Moderna at separate facilities in Visp in November.
A spokeswoman for the Swiss company referred questions to Moderna about vaccine quantities, so far.
Once Lonza-made ingredients are completed, they are deep-frozen and sent to Laboratorios Farmaceuticos ROVI, 1,600 kms (994 miles) away in Madrid, Spain, for "fill and finish", to be put in vials and loaded on pallets.
ROVI, which is also filling-and-finishing Moderna vaccines bound for Canada, also did not comment on how many shots it has produced, so far, for European distribution.
Kuehne + Nagel, which previously won a contract with Germany's North Rhine-Westphalia state to set up its vaccination centres, will bring Moderna's vaccine from ROVI and Recipharm sites in Spain and France to its Belgium hub, then coordinate distribution to the rest of Europe.
Kuehne + Nagel did not give a value for the contract.
A spokesman told Reuters "the vast majority" of its deliveries will be by truck, though islands including Iceland, Cyprus or Malta will likely be by air.
($1 = 0.8768 Swiss francs)
(Reporting by John Miller, additional reporting by Caroline Humer in New York and Ingrid Melander in Madrid; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)