The fallout from the rapid onset of COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 hit all sectors hard. On the global front, supply chain woes around pharmaceutical ingredient shortages emerged as a concern, given the amount of production that happens in China and India. In the U.S., the immediate and most tangible impact on the industry was a lack of commercial access to healthcare support. This quickly evolved into changes in prescription patterns, with a shift to telemedicine and the cancellation of many operative procedures.
As COVID-19 vaccine candidates started showing efficacy, and public health entities began planning for their rollout, the urgency and scale of worldwide administration started to tax most healthcare supply chains. From the temperature-controlled requirements of the mRNA-backed vaccines, to sourcing clinical staff and supplies, and finally the need to meet high demand, COVID-19 challenged even the most resilient supply chains and seasoned leaders.
So as 2021 winds down, with the virus still permeating most aspects of life, what have we learned about it along the way that will fortify supply chains even after it recedes?
Digital supply chain technologies are ready for prime time. The mainstream media was quick to pick up on the difficulty many clinics would face in adhering to the strict thermal control needs of the vaccines. Yet cold-chain requirements were nothing new to pharmaceutical manufacturers and their packaging and logistics partners. Internet-of-things (IoT) devices added a layer of confidence to existing thermal protection, with the ability to relay information on temperature, location, and condition in real time. These devices are only becoming smarter, smaller and less expensive, as IoT technologies advance quickly in their ability to generate real-time condition insights.
“Do something” becomes a rallying cry. While real-time data feeds enable the identification of issues, the ability to act on those insights is vital to eliminating risk from supply chains. For example, the sourcing of dry ice went from being a commodity pre-COVID to something much scarcer at the outset of the nationwide vaccination program. Clinicians were able to administer vaccines in a safe and timely manner through access to inventory alerts about delays or package-handling errors.
When it comes to weather, expect the unexpected. As extreme weather events continue to increase in frequency and intensity, the impact on supply chains becomes ever more significant. Through the use of thermal materials for additional protection, vaccine administrators can salvage doses that would otherwise have to be removed from the last mile. Real-time access to weather data is helpful for anticipating problems, but shippers can also mitigate the long-term effects of storms by optimizing packaging for both weight and duration.
Vaccine hesitancy is multi-faceted. In the U.S., a relatively high rate of vaccine hesitancy has emerged as a societal issue that’s extending the morbidity and mortality impacts of COVID-19. Some reluctant individuals might be aided in their decision-making through access to accurate information about the safety and security of clinical shipments. Since the start of the pandemic, the availability of personal protective equipment and pharmaceutical counterfeiting have been a concern, giving rise to anxiety about authenticity. Healthcare workers can help to ensure the integrity of vaccines — and even, possibly, change hearts and minds — by educating the general population about high-tech protections, including effective packaging and integrated monitors.
Protecting the place we call home is more important than ever. Although the environment may have enjoyed a brief reprieve from the effects of carbon emissions from factories and other economic activity, the climate crisis has not resolved. On the contrary, it’s is more urgent than ever that we act sustainably. It can be tempting to ship every clinical therapy overnight in an attempt to ensure integrity and timeliness, but that’s neither economically nor environmentally feasible. During the pandemic, providers and consumers adapted to many new ways of doing things, including demonstrating comfort with reusable packaging when the return process is simple. Going forward, manufacturers and end-users can benefit from higher-grade thermal protection by embracing a reuse approach for biopharmaceutical packaging. At the same time, they can derive measurable sustainability improvements in water, energy, carbon and landfill waste.
While it’s unclear when or whether life will ever return to the pre-COVID “normal,” the pandemic did illuminate areas of weakness in global supply chains. Manufacturers and their partners learned many vital lessons that can better position them to protect and distribute clinical breakthroughs with confidence.
Jay McHarg is chief executive officer of AeroSafe Global.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.