Fast-paced change and unpredictability are now the norm in pharmaceutical logistics. The whole industry had to adapt incredibly quickly in early 2020 and has continued to work at pace on the front line of the vaccine rollout ever since. With this in mind, there are lots of challenges in store for 2022 and beyond.
Some are unrelated to the pandemic. Some we won’t know about until they hit. And some are a continuation of what we’ve all been dealing with for the last 2 years. We’ll begin with the last of these and focus on the biggest challenge of all: the eye-watering lack of air cargo capacity.
Planes full to bursting
This might not be a worry for every manufacturer. For example, paracetamol can safely be transported by boat. But with the explosion in temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals —exacerbated by COVID vaccines — there has been a greater need for air cargo capacity than ever before. Why? Because keeping treatments within their safe temperature range in transit is hard and the quicker they can be moved, the better. This calls for jets flying across continents at 550 mph.
Yet, just when we needed flights the most, the travelling public decided not to fly and were often banned from doing so. This is important because passenger aircraft accounted for nearly half (47%) of global air freight capacity prior to the pandemic.1
As of November 2021, global flight capacity was 27.9% below the level operated in November 2019.2 In short, there aren’t enough people in the sky, so there isn’t enough air freight capacity. This has been exacerbated by the explosion in e-commerce.
In fact, by October 2021, planes were being chartered to carry freight at a cost of $2 million or more. This is more than double the prepandemic cost.3 There’s also the emergence of “preighters” in which empty passenger aircraft have packages placed on seats and in the hold.4
To deal with this incredible squeeze, pharmaceutical firms need to make every square centimetre of space count on a flight. That means choosing active cold chain containers that maximise space rather than opting for wasteful passive packaging.
Prioritisation is key
Linked to the lack of capacity is the challenge of prioritisation. In normal times, the balance of power sits with the pharmaceutical customer who can demand a shipment at the drop of a hat. Although forwarders, airlines and container firms will always put their customers first, there does need to be more planning.
This needs to take place within the pharma companies themselves — so they can agree what consignments are crucial from their own inventory — but also with their suppliers. Forwarders need more time to plan when there are so many limiting factors. This will ensure that everyone wins — from manufacturer to patient.
Cold chain everywhere
As they prioritise, there is the added complication of needing to reach more locations than ever before. There are two factors behind this. First, there’s the pandemic. No one is safe until we’re all safe, which calls for a global vaccine campaign. Secondly, there’s the huge growth in the use of temperature-sensitive treatments (such as insulin) in emerging markets.
We therefore need a greater ability to distribute pharmaceuticals from global manufacturing sites and contract manufacturing organisations (CMOs) to every region on Earth, regardless of how remote or undeveloped they are. This brings a range of challenges with small airports and a lack of infrastructure.
The cold chain ecosystem needs to adapt and innovate, with all stakeholders working together to create pop-up, ground-handling sites that can manage shipments as planes hit the ground. This will ensure the fast, safe and reliable delivery of vaccines and other healthcare products.
Even more complex and fragile treatments
Not only will pharmaceuticals need to reach more places, but the complexity of doing so will increase. The gene therapy market is expected to grow by 34.8% by 2026.5 With this comes the requirement for shipping products at –70 °C or below, which can be a serious challenge.
Added to this is the rise of personalised medicine, a market that’s expected to grow to $796.8 billion by 2028.6 Let’s consider this for a moment. At the time of writing, there have been about 7.81 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered globally.7 Although each manufacturer has a slightly different approach, they’re not tailored to the individual and can be shipped in bulk.
Imagine trying to deliver even a fraction of this volume to specific individuals or healthcare professionals.
The complexity is unfathomable. Rising to this and the cryogenic challenge will be tough, but it’s possible. Manufacturers need plans for super cool shipping containers and potentially “Russian doll” style packs that break down to an individual level.
Business as usual challenges
Thinking back to the cold chain challenges of a prepandemic world, there was plenty to deal with even without the vaccine rollout. Tracking, visibility and the need to tackle counterfeit goods remains high on the agenda. Synchronisation and standardisation to ensure that hospitals will accept treatments is another issue facing the industry. Not to mention the need for greater compliance and digitisation.
It's clear that 2022 and beyond is going to be tough. There’s a huge amount facing the whole sector. And if there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that we must expect the unexpected. For this reason and all the other obstacles in our way, we must all review our strategies, build greater capacity and planning into the cold chain and be ready for whatever the next 12 months throws at us.
Because fast-paced change and unpredictability are now the norm in pharmaceutical logistics. The only way to face up to it is to innovate, be ready to try new solutions and to accept that what once worked may no longer be fit for purpose. Ultimately, there will always be a way. We just need to remain open minded about what it might look like.