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Drug distribution in sensitive areas of the world: challenges and solutions

Conflict, natural disasters, rerouting... In today’s world, delivering drugs in sensitive areas of the world is a challenge the pharmaceutical industry has to come to
by Alexis Martinez
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In March 2021, the container ship Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal, the key maritime corridor linking Asia with Europe. In just one week, this situation was enough to seriously disrupt international trade, which is hardly surprising when an estimated 10% of the world's maritime trade normally passes through this narrow waterway. As a result of this single event, 422 ships and 26 million metric tons of cargo were delayed.

The impact was so great that some countries have demanded almost a billion dollars in compensation from the shipowner. Egypt, for example, estimated its losses at between USD 12 and 15 million per day. And according to the insurer Allianz, total losses are likely to have been somewhere between USD 6 and 10 billion worldwide.   

Although blockages of the Suez Canal are fortunately rare, supply chain stakeholders are having to adapt quickly to similar events with increasing frequency. In recent months, the Suez Canal has proved to be a particularly sensitive area as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and terrorist attacks in the Red Sea. So it has become crucial to find alternative transportation solutions to guarantee continuity of delivery for all kinds of goods in the face of such disruptions.  

Alexis Martinez, Corporate Customer Success Manager Healthcare at GEODIS, had to deal with just such a situation a few months ago. Working directly with their pharmaceutical company customer, GEODIS teams had to react quickly to find solutions that would ensure the safe transportation of a cargo of sensitive products. The solution adopted had to successfully address a range of critical issues, including delivery lead times, the integrity of the pharmaceutical products involved, and the need to keep them at the right temperature. Alexis now shares that experience with us, and tells us the lessons learned.   

Could you describe the situation you found yourself in, and the issues your customer was facing at that time?

Alexis Martinez: Our customer is one of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies, and needed to deliver a consignment of drugs from Northern Europe to Saudi Arabia, which included making the collection and delivery within a strict time window of just two weeks. 

The lifespan of the product and local regulatory conditions meant that it would not be an option to exceed that time window, because the receiving country can refuse entry to products where delivery times are not met. 

The problem was that although the ship was initially scheduled to pass through the Suez Canal, it had to be rerouted due to the situation in the Red Sea and the risks inherent in the area.

The second important criterion was the large size of the cargo: there were 4 refrigerated containers packed with a total of 140 pallets. Fluctuations in temperature had to be avoided at all costs, and remain within the range of 15-25°C (59-77°F) to guarantee product integrity. 

In light of all these requirements, the decision was taken to airfreight the entire cargo to Saudi Arabia from Sri Lanka, to where the ship had been rerouted.

Why not opt for an alternative sea route?

A.M.: A new sea route would have meant a further delay of between 2 and 3 weeks, so we wouldn’t have been able to meet the original deadline for delivery.

So airfreight was the natural choice. It didn’t take our experts long to find an airfreight operator capable of carrying all 140 pallets under the temperature-controlled conditions needed to guarantee the integrity of the products; the partner in question was a particularly good choice, since it holds IATA-CEIV pharma cold chain certification. 

Read also: ‘Logistique du froid pharmaceutique : les enjeux à connaître’ (Pharmaceutical cold chain logistics: what you need to know)

What protocol did you apply to ensure that shipment stayed at the right temperature?

A.M.: We ensured strict temperature control with a protocol that included installation of data loggers capable of detecting any variance in temperature outside the specified range, and flagging up an alarm in the system. End customers can refer to this data for product traceability purposes. So in this instance, we rushed 150 data loggers from North Europe and involved our local agent in setting them up quickly and securely. 

Our teams also covered the aviation cargo pallets (PMC*) with thermal blankets for the transfer between the terminal and the aircraft loading apron. 

*Prorate Manual – Cargo


What factors would you say played a key role in the success of this mission?

A.M.: The expertise of our local network played an absolutely essential role in identifying the most suitable shipping capabilities very quickly. Nevertheless, I remained the single point of contact for the customer throughout the mission, ably supported by our pharmaceutical expert Anders-Petter Pettersson, who is based in North Europe.

This structure ensured the smooth flow of information, rapid implementation and data capture.

There’s no doubt that flexibility is essential to effective logistics, but it must be accompanied by detailed knowledge of regulations and compliance with export and trade control regulations. It was the combination of these strengths and practices that enabled us to be confident about complying with all the relevant standards, and therefore to deliver the full consignment of drugs on time and in good condition. 

We’ve received some very positive feedback from our customer, because there was no impact on their inventories, and therefore no impact on patients.

Would you like to find out more about pharmaceutical or cold chain logistics? Then please come and meet our experts at LogiPharma between April 16-18 in Lyon. Make an appointment with our experts now to discuss your transportation and logistics challenges. 

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