28MAY20 saw the second in a 3-part webinar series hosted by Pharma.Aero’s Frank van Gelder, and STAT Times on “How collaboration can prepare us for the impact after Covid-19” when it comes to transporting pharmaceuticals. COVID-19 saw the removal of circa 80% of passenger flights and cargo rates increase between 200%-500%. While Pharma, given its very nature, remains a priority passenger during the entire crisis, the situation has thrown up key learnings and challenges.
Digital visibility is key
Ruud Van der Geer, Assistant Director Global Strategy Team at MSD, whose company is one of a number “in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine,” underlined that the need for digitalization of supply chain became more than clear during COVID-19 with all the transport disruptions that were happening. “Visibility, detectability and control over our products while they are being moved, has never been more important than in the last couple of months.” Thanks to a cloud-based digital logistics program already embarked upon in the third quarter of 2019, enabling data connectivity from 8-9 different sources (including Johns Hopkins COVID-19 infection numbers integrated into the system a week after the information was available), full end-to-end tracking, real-time information on temperature/tampering, proactive alerts in case of issues and even predictive analysis (lane-risk assessments), MSD was able to quickly adapt and divert shipments headed to outbreak areas – even before the pandemic turned global – and relocate critical products to where they were needed – often within a very short time-frame. Digital transparency allowed for agile decision-making, greater transparency, and better control in an otherwise out of control situation.
Lives depend on the quality of the pharma supply chain
“Availability and continuity of quality information is key” was also Head of Global Transportation at Zoetis, Rita O’Sullivan’s statement on the topic, when faced with having to make decisions quickly. Describing the highly complex and multi-faceted character of pharma supply chains even in pre-pandemic times, where a single “one-size fits all” approach is impossible, the need for collaboration is crucial “across the cold chain, as we cannot accept quality risks in the supply chain.” A drop in quality can have fatal consequences for the patient relying on the product. The unprecedented situation currently, has forced everyone in the supply chain to think differently. “In some way, the crisis allowed us to focus on some of our really key elements, and get back to basics around how we move products globally, how we make ensure the integrity of our products and that they are fit for use when they arrive at destination.” She urged that all involved in pharma transportation need to have a real understanding of product portfolio, and collaboration is key between airports, airlines, and freight forwarders together with shippers.
Numerous capacity challenges
COVID-19 not only led to a massive drop in available air cargo capacity, but also to resources in customs clearance and ground handling at airports and in warehouses, exposing pharma products to increased risks because of longer waiting times, storage in inadequate areas (possibly influencing product temperature), and perhaps through less-qualified staff, too. Since the flow of cargo was disrupted, capacities were further impacted by the lack of suitable containers in locations requiring them.
IATA’s Head Special Cargo, Andrea Gruber pointed to the intense collaboration with governments during the crisis to speed up processes such as the approval of passenger cargo-only flights: So far 120 carriers have converted over 1,100 passenger planes to cargo-only, and 66 of these have had their seats removed. Not all currently involved in the movement of pharma shipments are CEIV-certified (the IATA initiative since 2014 to ensure quality in pharma standards with more than 330 companies certified globally so far.) IATA is looking at enabling remote assessments instead of the otherwise on-site, physical audits, based on stricter risk assessments, to speed up quality standards.
Future hopes and struggles
With the stabilization of passenger operations expected to take 2-5 years, Rita pointed out that “Other industries coming back to work will compete for the limited capacity” available on aircraft, and that airlines struggling to recover may well “go where the money is” - the risk being not only that they will deploy narrow-bodies on routes previously serviced by wide-bodies, but also that a number of point-to-point services may be terminated, as the focus lies more on hub-and-spoke or only profitable routes. In the struggle for survival, partners along the supply chain may choose not to invest in further developing or improving existing cool-chain services, until greater cash-flow is secured.
Global Head of Network and Quality at DHL, Nina Heinz, said that she felt a “risk-based approach [to supply chain management] is becoming more accessible and more acceptable” and asked Ruud how to ensure greater speed to market whilst maintaining quality standards. He agreed that product quality is a must, but that the chance is there to focus on improving the execution of transport without decreasing quality: MSD’s digital logistics system had proven that with 100% transparency, flexibility is given, and the control on ensuring quality is even improved compared to before.
Ruud hoped that certain ways of working that have been deemed acceptable in this crisis situation, where speed is of the essence, become more sustainable in the new normal: he cited the lack of
certified boxes where non-certified packaging was used in order to get the shipments to destination urgently, and where, otherwise, in pre-corona times, you would have been waiting a year for the
packing to be certified for transport. The hope is to enable greater agility whilst maintaining quality – and he underlines that this is possible through ensuring 100% visibility, strong
partnerships in place, and where everyone involved can maintain full control of the shipment movement.
Community is key
Pharma.Aero’s Vice-Chairman, Jaisey Yip, summarized the 1.5-hour webinar with a clear picture in times of corona: “COVID 19 has exposed pharma companies to unprecedented supply chain risks as well as challenges. Even though we all now are practicing physical distancing, when it comes to within the Pharma Supply Chain, I think we should be holding hands, and be more tightly knit that ever to ensure that life-saving medical supplies are safely transported from point to point. […] We should take a community approach.”
That community approach underlines the Pharma.Aero’s vision from its inception on 27OCT16 to “Achieve excellence in reliable end-to-end air transportation for pharma shippers,” by fostering the much-cited collaboration amongst all those involved in the pharma supply chain.
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