Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific is expanding its cold storage facilities to handle 8.6 million Covid-19 vaccine doses a day, as governments the world over prepare for the most ambitious global inoculation campaign in history.
Hong Kong International Airport will also play its part by giving vaccine-carrying planes preference in parking closest to freight terminals, allowing for the faster loading and unloading of consignments of the medicine, which would similarly be prioritised ahead of other cargo.
The new cold storage facility at the city’s airport will enable Cathay to ultimately handle enough of the vital drug to cover in a single day more than half of the vaccine doses already on order by the Hong Kong government, though many of the shots transiting through the city will be shipped to other countries, as the local roll-out is expected to be spread across 2021.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
“We have just expanded so [the cargo terminal] can handle an additional 500,000 doses,” the airline said on Friday. “That’s more than 7 million doses, and there will be more cold storage coming online soon. This new cold storage room will be able to handle a further 1.6 million doses.”
Cathay, as the third-largest cargo airline globally, is expected to play a key role in handling and shipping vaccines from its Hong Kong base, the world’s busiest air cargo airport.
Global logistics courier DHL has forecast that some 10 billion doses would need to be shipped around the world over two years.
Tom Owen, Cathay’s director of cargo, called the task of transporting the coronavirus vaccine around the world one of “the biggest humanitarian missions ever to involve civil aviation”.
The vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech in particular are delicate, and need to be transported at minus 70 degrees, creating a logistical challenge throughout the global supply chain.
Among the issues facing airlines would be the need to carry dry ice, which is essential to maintaining optimum conditions for the vaccines. However, dry ice – which is frozen carbon dioxide – turns into a gas over time, replacing breathable air in the cabin.
South Korea’s move last week to relax rules on dry ice carriage in aircraft meant a Boeing 747 cargo plane could carry 11,000kg of the substance instead of 3,300kg, meaning 52 containers of vaccines could be flown at a time instead of 15.
Cathay Pacific confirmed it was working with aircraft manufacturers to increase the amount of dry ice it could carry on freighters and cargo-only passenger planes.
“We need to make sure we are able to carry as much as needed,” Owen said.
Earlier this month, Hong Kong ordered 15 million doses from Sinovac and Pfizer, and is expected to receive 7.5 million more from AstraZeneca. The first doses from Sinovac were expected to arrive next month.
Cathay said it was ready to take the lead and bring vaccines to Hong Kong.
With vaccine production centres in India, Europe, mainland China and the United States, the airline said it would be in a position to help distribute vaccines from these areas.
The Airport Authority Hong Kong said the local hub offered 120, 150 and 170 cargo flights per week to mainland China, Europe and the United States, respectively, underscoring its ability to help play a role in the transport of vaccines through the city.
The airport on Friday also showed off some of the equipment that would be used to keep vaccines cold, including a large temperature-controlled mobile storage unit that can be chilled to minus 20 degrees. Depending on the type of container used, the airport could fit between 150,000 and 300,000 vaccines per storage unit.
Cathay Pacific has been one of the airlines most affected by the fallout of Covid-19 as governments worldwide imposed border and travel restrictions. It has grounded most of its passenger planes, and was rescued by a government-backed HK$39 billion bailout earlier this year.
Cathay’s cargo unit has been the only bright spot in recent months for the airline group, which is expected to lose in excess of HK$20 billion (US$2.8 billion) in 2020. It said it expected to carry vaccines in the belly of passenger planes, strengthening its justification to reactivate grounded aircraft.
The company said its cargo-only passenger aircraft, which have had seats removed to add more air freight capacity, would also be expected to fly through the first half of next year.