Is Hong Kong ready to move a vaccine?

Last week, we got a peek into Singapore's vaccine preparedness with Changi Airport and SATS; let’s find out what Hong Kong is doing.

Air & Cargo Services air cargo Air Cargo Asia air cargo freight Air Forwarding air freight Air Freight Asia Air Freight Logistics air freighter air freighting Air Logistics Asia Air Shipping Asia airlines cargo Airport Authority Hong Kong airways cargo asia cargo news cargo aviation CEIV Pharma Covid-19 Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Limited

Temperature-controlled zone at one of the cargo terminals in HKIA (Credit: Hactl)

As the world’s busiest air cargo hub, Hong Kong airport and its partner ground handlers and ramp handling operators have a huge role to play in the transport of a Covid-19 vaccine not just in Asia Pacific but across the globe. 

Describing it as the “biggest product launch ever,” players in the global pharma supply chain are scrambling to prepare for the massive logistics this would entail, albeit faced with a few unknowns, such as packaging, product specifications, volume and manufacturing locations. 

Also read: Are Asia Pacific’s airports and ground handler ready for a vaccine? 

In a recent survey by TIACA and Pharma.Aero, data showed that airports and ground handlers felt less prepared compared to their airline and logistics counterparts when it comes to vaccine logistics. 

Unlike European airports that have set up or announced task forces simulating scenarios for the import and export of various types of vaccines in a safe and efficient way, HKIA has not announced any. 

But here’s what we do know, HKIA launched the world’s first pharma corridor last year with Brussels Airport, Europe’s key air cargo hub for handling pharmaceutical products.  

HKIA is also one of the few partner airports certified by IATA CEIV Pharma, which recognises the airport’s competency and preparedness in handling pharmaceuticals by air. This puts the air cargo hub in a good position to handle the expected surge in demand for Covid-19 vaccines when available. 

“The accreditation validates HKIA, together with the three cargo terminals, three ramp handling operators as well as Cathay Pacific, for the expertise to handle the entire airport-wide pharmaceutical transportation process end-to-end, from the time an aircraft lands to releasing the pharmaceuticals to agents, and vice versa,” a spokesperson of Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) said. 

Wilson Kwong, chief executive of HACTL (Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Limited), one of the three cargo terminals certified at HKIA, told Payload Asia the essence of handling the vaccine will be compliance with CEIV Pharma.

Unless there is any new requirement of which the industry is currently unaware, this certification and the procedures and equipment behind it should enable supply chains to function robustly in handling the anticipated vaccine shipments,” Kwong noted. 

HKIA has about 5,000 square metres of cold room storage available for pharmaceutical products at the three cargo terminals. And when it comes to efficiency, the airport has an electronic clearance system and round-the-clock customs services operating at the highest standards.

The Airport Authority said two apron shelters are being built for temperature-sensitive cargo, which will be ready by the end of the year. And setting up pharma corridors with other airports is also in the conversation, with plans to form a network catering to the robust demand for pharmaceuticals. 

Hong Kong has had its share of health crises disrupting airport operations, but the unprecedented impact of Covid-19 is unlike any other. Seventeen years ago, it was in March, the same month the virus broke globally, when HKIA saw passenger traffic drop 60 percent and around 30 percent of cancelled flights because of SARS. But by September of the same year, passenger traffic had recovered to 95 percent of the pre-SARS level, with cargo volume up 7.9 percent on a year-on-year basis. 

Now 7 or 8 months into the pandemic, passenger traffic in September is still below 98 percent from last year, with cargo down just a little over 4 percent. The airport and the rest of its affiliates may have to rely on their cargo operations for quite some time until there’s any type of recovery from the passenger side. 

With an approved vaccine, the incumbent’s capabilities in handling sensitive cargo will be put to test. 

“We have been fully geared up, well before the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, for handling temperature-controlled goods including pharmaceuticals, as part of our business strategy to capture the expanding opportunities in the cargo sector,” a spokesperson from AAHK noted.

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