Outbreak of COVID-19 Among Cargo Staff at Shanghai Pudong Airport Impedes Operations

Outbreak of COVID-19 Among Cargo Staff at Shanghai Pudong Airport Impedes Operations

Massive flight cancellations have been reported at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport (PVG) since a fresh cluster of COVID-19 infections was detected on November 22 after two local cargo handlers tested positive for the virus. This led to a semi-lockdown at PVG as authorities initiated mass medical testing for nearly 18,000 staff from the afternoon of November 22, prompting a cancellation of 277 commercial flights on the day. Further cancellation of over 500 flights at PVG was reported on November 24, with almost half of scheduled inbound flights suspended at China’s busiest cargo airport. Images from local media sources portrayed public panic and chaotic scenes as people attempted to flee from the airport after news emerged of the outbreak. 

At least seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported among the PVG airport staff, including several cargo staff and their close contacts, after 17,719 airport workers were tested. According to reports, two airport freight staff were initially infected while cleaning a container cargo from North America without wearing masks on October 30. Although not cold chain cargo, the container was reportedly damp, and the infection was similar to the traces of the virus found in imported frozen food in recent months in China. 

The recent outbreaks have led to the tightening of COVID-19 restrictions in Shanghai. From November 24, the risk rating for some residential communities in Shanghai’s Zhangjiang, Zhoupu, and Zhuqiao towns has been raised to medium risk, the middle tier on a three-tier scale. 

Impact on cargo operations at PVG

According to PVG airport officials, traces of infections have only been found in the cargo handling area and not at the passenger terminals. Intelligence received by Everstream Analytics indicates that disinfections at PVG are ongoing and all cargo terminals have been shut down temporarily, significantly delaying cargo operations. Affected airlines include Emirates, Qatar Airways, Cabo Verde, Lufthansa, Nippon Airways, Polar Air Cargo, and Air China. Although import handling is still being processed, delays are possible in the coming days as workers are compelled to undergo swab tests. Moreover, all unit load devices will now need to be disinfected upon arrival. As of this writing, customs inspections at the airport are suspended until further notice. 

From November 25, a new negative test regulation will come into effect, which requires pick-up and delivery service drivers, courier staff, and agents to present a valid negative test report in order to enter into PVG bonded warehouses. The new protocols are expected to hamper air cargo operations in the coming days amid a shortage of manpower. It remains unclear if cargo staff are being quarantined at the airport or have returned home. 

Stringent customs processing 

In the next few weeks, further stringent customs inspections can be expected at Shanghai Pudong Airport, as Chinese health officials are already ramping up inspections on potentially contaminated imports after numerous cold chain cargo have tested COVID-19 positive in recent months. Authorities blamed a resurgence in local infections on food imports and the equipment used after discovering traces of the virus.  

Tianjin Binhai International Airport (TNS) also faced similar flight cancellations recently after local authorities rolled out mass swab tests to the airport cargo staff and residential communities to contain a local infection cluster. The outbreak emerged after two cold chain storage workers were infected with COVID-19 in early November after handling imported frozen pork from Germany. Since November 8, Tianjin officials have been carrying out tests at cold storage facilities and on associated cargo staff. Thus, similar procedures can be anticipated in Shanghai in the coming weeks, with product recalls or temporary suspension of imports from certain suppliers that have a record of COVID-19 outbreaks likely.

According to reports, more than 800,000 samples from frozen food imports have been tested and trade with 99 overseas suppliers have been suspended after finding traces of the virus. Chinese customs announced that they will suspend imports from the affected suppliers for 7 days if the virus is detected on imported food products and apply a month of suspension if a supplier’s products test positive for a third time. 

Outlook

Shanghai Pudong International Airport is the largest cargo airport in China and 3rd largest in the world, handling over 3.1 million tons of cargo annually. It is also one of the main transport hubs that healthcare and logistics companies are hoping to rely on to facilitate the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. While the recent incident may have caused a setback in its operations, the airport authorities have announced that it will conduct regular nucleic acid tests for freight staff and arrange COVID-19 vaccination for those in high-risk positions to reassure international supply chains on its capacity as the top air cargo hub, particularly on the brink of a global vaccine distribution.   

Customers with shipments to Shanghai Pudong International Airport in the coming days are advised to anticipate significant delays in export and import operations, including customs clearance, aircraft loading, and shipment handover processes. Liaise with local representatives to keep abreast of regulatory changes, particularly in presenting documentation and health certificates. Alternatively, customers with shipments planned to PVG can also consider Beijing International Airport or Nanjing, Shanghai Hongqiao, Zhengzhou, and Hefei as alternatives to transport time-sensitive shipments. 

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