blue pills and test tube with hand

Strengthening the resilience of pharmaceutical supply chains

Essential components required to prepare pharmaceutical supply chains to cope with further disruptions
David Frouin by David Frouin
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In our previous article, we detailed the specific challenges of pharmaceutical cold chain management, linked in particular to temperature control. Maintaining the cold chain, in line with existing regulations, calls for investment in temperature-controlled infrastructures, specially equipped vehicles and traceability tools.

The pandemic – which has served to amplify existing trends – has demonstrated the importance of efficient logistics. Players in the healthcare sector have been forced to show resilience and reorganize their supply chains for greater efficiency. But since this unprecedented event, today's challenge is to move from a defensive mindset (reacting to an event when it occurs) to an anticipatory, proactive mentality (anticipating an event before it even happens) to be better prepared for supply chain disruptions.

What perspectives and lessons can we draw from the pandemic?

Supply chains have always been the subject of special attention – a fact which has been exacerbated during the pandemic, making it vitally important to limit the consequences of these unforeseen events as much as possible.

Weakened supply chains, faced with disruption

In a now-globalized economy, the crisis demonstrated the critical need for a flexible, adaptable supply chain in the healthcare sector. Driven by the accelerating rate of development of vaccines against Covid-19, logistics processeswere urgently reorganized to store and distribute the vaccines in an appropriate manner, as lives were at stake.

In France, for example, there was insufficient capacity for receiving, storing and distributing vaccines in accordance with pharmaceutical product specifications. Quick mobilization scenarios were therefore required.

The measures taken to deal with this sudden global market volatility, disruptions to international transport and urgent need have demonstrated the supply chain's ability to adapt.

Nevertheless, the lack of a continuity plan in some cases has amplified the supply chain risks for some players and disrupted their supply chains.

In addition, the long, cumbersome processes of qualifying and approving aspects of the supply chain – such as flows, packaging and infrastructures – have been the main impediment to agility in the pharmaceutical supply chain. These approval processes, introduced by health authorities, are becoming increasingly drastic.

Constant market changes exacerbated by the pandemic

Since 2013, when regulations relating to temperature-sensitive health products were tightened (to now cover around 80% of all medicines), the temperature-controlled logistics market has grown by 40%. This compliance requirement can become even more stringent in times of crisis or take even longer. Anticipating changes – for example, by prequalifying suppliers or giving them responsibility for obtaining qualification in advance – makes it possible to prepare better and ensure excellent timely deliveries.

In addition, with the rise of biosimilars, cell therapies and messenger RNA vaccines, brand-new challenges are emerging, and ways to make the distribution of these temperature-sensitive products more reliable and secure are changing.

What solutions can deliver an agile, sustainable pharmaceutical supply chain?

Supply chain agility is critically important in an international environment which has seen a proliferation of disruptions in recent years, not to mention the sensitive and often urgent nature of pharmaceutical products. By increasing their storage and transport capacity, supply chains become more robust and flexible in the long run.

Greater security for logistical infrastructure and resources

Even as they are being faced with new challenges, pharmaceutical companies must be able to rely on a secure, sustainable supply chain: It is vitally important for them to secure the supply of raw materials and packaging materials throughout the (currently fragmented) manufacturing process for a drug, then ensure the supply of treatments to patients.

In order to improve the reliability of their supply chains and ensure regular supply to their target markets, pharmaceutical laboratories can benefit from the support of a logistics partner that can secure and streamline its physical resources, provide a comprehensive transport offering (road, air and sea) and offer dedicated infrastructures and vehicle fleets. The same provider will also be able to offer specific packaging solutions to maintain the required temperature levels.

In late 2020, GEODIS modified its existing infrastructure to offer a rapid, reliable response to the French health authorities (Santé Publique France). In just three weeks, its Val de Reuil pharmaceutical campus was equipped with refrigerated containers at -4 °F and freezers at -112 °F. These installations were then checked and qualified in record time. And such new solutions are now proving to be of long-term value.

The growth of the pharmaceutical market is having a strong impact on capacity requirements, resulting in significant investment. For the challenge is a twofold one: firstly, to maintain storage temperatures for pharmaceutical products; and secondly, to reduce the energy impact of refrigeration systems. Some drugs need to be stored in ambient-temperature warehouses (59-77 °F), while others need to be kept in freezers (as low as -112 °F) or in cold rooms (36-46 °F). The specific nature of pharmaceutical productsmeans that the cold chain needs to be maintained on a permanent basis. For this reason, refrigeration systems are equipped with probes and loggers. This results in significant investments in freezers and a gradual increase in cold-room capacity. By increasing the number of their long-term partnerships, logistics providers will thus be able to invest in these different segments of the pharmaceutical market.

However, this complexity raises other deeper questions, such as the environmental impact of the sector as a whole. Logistics experts are currently torn between the urgent need presented by some situations, and a very energy-intensive cold chain. Any reconciliation of these two requirements will certainly feature greener fuels for all types of transport, the development of electric vehicle fleets and the introduction of more environmentally-friendly packaging solutions. Load optimization and zero-defect implementation continue to be drivers of action on a daily basis.

An increased rate of digital transformation, improving visibility and productivity

Rigorous data management was critical to the successful roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines. At a time of globalization, in which supply chains are very sensitive to disruptions related to supply flows, technology can reduce risks and streamline the management of these flows while also improving quality of service to patients.

The accelerating rate of vaccine deliveries, in combination with the specific storage constraints for messenger RNA vaccines, has prompted logistics providers to innovate. Using technologies such as the blockchain (a system for securely storing and transmitting data), they have enhanced processes for tracking the physical integrity of such sensitive products throughout the entire supply chain.

Considering the sensitivity and risk exposure of pharmaceuticals in the supply chain, the decision to digitally transform operations and processes is a logical one.

New technologies offer multiple advantages:

  • Greater visibility of the flows of pharmaceutical products, using real-time supply chain information systems and traceability tools, via a single point of contact, making it possible to track shipments in near real time.
  • Guaranteed traceability and end-to-end flow control in support of connected objects (Internet of Things – IoT). This is a network of sensor-equipped objects which feedback information on temperature, location and transport conditions in line with Good Distribution Practices (GDPs). These consist of a set of standards for the supply, handling, storage and transportation of drugs for human use and their active ingredients. Holders of wholesale licenses and authorizations must comply with these standards to ensure the quality, safety and security of medicines throughout the pharmaceutical supply chain.
  • Greater productivity via the "pharmaceutical aggregation" principle, which offers productivity gains upon receipt of orders by the end recipient. According to this process, each participant in the supply chain (manufacturers, logistics providers, sellers, etc.) inherits the information from the previous participant, adding their own data to it. Each aggregated data set is saved in a database before being passed on to the next actor in the logistics chain. All the necessary data can therefore be obtained in just a few seconds simply by scanning the barcode, saving considerable time and resources. Actions such as targeted returns or recalls of specific drugs are also facilitated. This method, borrowed from serialization, is used in the fight against counterfeiting because it makes it possible to identify and authenticate drugs at each stage. It is also of strategic value, given that more than 10% of drugs in circulation around the world are estimated to be counterfeit.

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