Pharmaceutical logistics is in the spotlight now more than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The requirement for clinical trials, vaccines and treatments in tandem with global travel restrictions has put the sector under significant strain.
This has led to a need for more innovation, collaboration and positivity than ever before from those involved to ensure vital drugs, samples and other sensitive materials makes it to their intended destination on time.
To find out more about how the sector is coping, I spoke with Scott Ohanesian, SVP Commercial Operations at QuickSTAT, to get his insights on how they’ve been affected and what a specialist logistics service provider could look like in a post COVID-19 world.
Commercial airlines are usually the most efficient, secure and safe way of transporting cargo for pharma logistics providers. With much of the global fleet grounded, Scott spoke about the unique challenge that presents and the need for contingencies to be put in place.
Some countries have been cancelling flights altogether, which meant we had to pivot to direct drive logistics.
He gave one example of Poland. With no flights into Warsaw, QuickSTAT were forced to fly into neighbouring countries, drive to the border and then hand over the materials to Polish drivers who could take the products for the “final mile” delivery to hospital sites.
He shared a similar story of helping a German company access their manufacturing facility in Italy at the height of the pandemic. This saw them moving API shipments from Germany to Paris and then driving through the few French-Italian borders that remained open to ensure their critical drug manufacture.
We have to know if a flight is cancelled what is the next flight we can utilize, what can we put it on, how can we get it there smoothly and what is the safest method to do so.
Keeping things moving has required a near-constant stream of information. Having people on the ground at a regional, or even country, level has been key because flights, regulations and laws are still changing frequently.
This required a phenomenal infrastructure and network of people who are able to be nimble, adapt and innovate to ensure that this temperature-and-time sensitive cargo reaches its destination. We went on to discuss the way in which QuickSTAT have had to respond in order to make sure deliveries continue to arrive.
One regulatory change that has had to take place has been with delivering drugs to patients. Pre-COVID, some countries didn’t allow direct-to-patient home delivery but this has had to change due to a combination of vulnerable patients and overwhelmed healthcare facilities.
Delivering direct-to-patients presents another raft of complications, just to keep moving and maintain business continuity.
For example – recipients usually have to sign for a delivery, but as a vulnerable patient, that’s not always possible. So QuickSTAT have introduced a contact less delivery model., that requires precision to ensure temperature controlled drug is maintained at its proper temperature and is confirmed to have been transported appropriately prior to receipt. Also, the return, cleaning, and management of the reusable vacuum insulated shippers used to maintain proper temperature, need to follow a robust process to ensure safety and efficiency within the supply chain.
Another challenge has been data management. When going direct-to or direct-from patient, segregation of highly sensitive data needs to occur. As Scott told me, you can’t ‘unblind’ patient information, so it’s a fine balancing act between allowing them to have the information needed to successfully carry out therapy or patient sample transport, while ensuring strict adherence to patient privacy laws.
To manage all of these issues and negotiate the border closures, arrange personnel for border handovers and continued integrity of the product being delivered, QuickSTAT have expanded their dedicated business continuity team, to make the most of the (thankfully) sophisticated infrastructure the company had in place pre-COVID.
There’s a very solid foundation and expertise. The talent and motivation was already in place, and because of that there was the ability to very quickly rise to the occasion and respond to very serious shipping needs.
The word unprecedented has been used too many times. But there really is no playbook for how to do your job or deliver your service during a pandemic. However, if you have that infrastructure, people resources and technology, you can go from 0 – 60 in a very short amount of time.
It’s important to also note the healthcare challenges this situation has presented too. As well as causing major disruption to businesses, some patients have become totally reliant on the successful execution of these operations.
Some specific personalised medicines, designed to treat individual patients for life threatening diseases , are incredibly expensive to manufacture and critical to patient care. They are also highly temperature sensitive and have a limited shelf life, so once manufacturing has begun, the clock is immediately ticking to ensure that patient receives that treatment in the right time frame, at the right temperature.
This has sometimes led to charter flights being utilized to mitigate patient risk. According to Scott that would have been ‘unheard of’ just a few months ago thanks to the vast selection of commercial flights that are usually available, but in life and death situations, QuickSTAT and their customers have been left with little other choice.
When businesses are forced to act in a crisis, those actions will have an impact post-crisis, some of which could be positive.
At the moment, the timescale as to when a return to business as usual (if ever) is unclear, but the point remains. I explored what, if any, positives Scott felt could come out of this.
From QuickSTAT’s perspective, he again reiterated his pride in their response, not only in making sure that deliveries made it to their intended recipients, but also in ensuring the safety of their employees.
Whilst much of the world has been working from home, that hasn’t been possible for the likes of warehouse workers or delivery drivers. Scott told me that the speed at which they’ve been able to introduce PPE and distancing measures to ensure their safety has been a really positive story to come out of this.
Looking at the wider industry, Scott also mentioned the “phenomenal” response from regulators. He hoped that COVID-19 may lead to more transparent rules and regulations moving ahead, ensuring faster, more efficient processes and creating alternative product distribution models.
We will see direct-to-patient and direct-from-patient become a lot more normal and less of an exception for trials when it can be used. For trials where it’s able to be used you’ll see more people build that into their protocol, which should have a positive impact for patients.
The current crisis has forced companies to become more resilient and robust. Making procedures and protocols COVID-19 proof has far exceeded previous regulatory requirements, ultimately making the whole sector stronger, safer and more robust.
While undoubtedly a trying time for the space at large, we can remain confident that there is a highly adaptable and intelligent pharmaceutical logistics network underpinning the global effort to combat COVID-19.
A huge thanks go to Scott Ohanesian, SVP Commercial Operations at QuickSTAT for his contribution to this article. If you have any questions, feedback or comments about anything you’ve read, please get in touch with me directly at email@example.com
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