Collaborative progress is here to stay

posted on 16th June 2022
Collaborative progress is here to stay

Megan Ramsay reports on how pharma air logistics operators and their customers are building on gains made during the Covid pandemic – including sustaining the increased cooperation achieved during the crisis, and improvements in efficiency, communication and visibility

The response to Covid-19 brought to the fore a number of issues related to pharma and vaccine logistics, including the need for more deep-frozen and cryogenic storage, more resilient supply chains, better coordination between larger supplier bases, and improved sustainability. There was a renewed focus within pharma logistics on packaging, temperature control and secure visibility through improved digital technology – all of which should help reduce the number of temperature excursions and gaps in the pharma supply chain going forward as next-generation biologics, specialised pharmaceuticals and personalised medicine all require ever more patient-critical, time- and temperature-sensitive logistics support.
But many of those trends were already apparent before the pandemic in the fast-moving and highly regulated healthcare sector. Pharma logistics has been under continuous development for years, so it did not take Covid to start that process.
“When you look to the future of healthcare, it’s all about innovations in biologics, specialty pharmaceuticals, and personalised medicine,” says Graham Cromb, vice president of Europe operations at UPS Healthcare. “These products make up the majority of the new products in development and are driving significant demand for precision logistics.”
But the urgency of the pandemic did accelerate a number of developments within healthcare air logistics, particularly levels of cooperation between stakeholders, while the quality of services has also moved forward thanks to continuing investments in better facilities, processes and digital capabilities. Rather than describing Covid as a transformative influence on the industry, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the pandemic has highlighted the value of what the pharma air freight supply chain was already doing well, and intensified the focus on improving its services further, in line with the evolving requirements of shippers.
John Batten, executive vice president, Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia at handler Worldwide Flight Services (WFS), observes: “I don’t think Covid has changed pharma. It already had its own unique requirements and needs, which continue to develop” – as does the supply chain that supports it, including the facilities offered by many cargo handlers.
WFS, for instance, has set up specialised pharma facilities in Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, London, Madrid and Barcelona as well as locations in Ireland, South Africa and Thailand, with another soon to open in Stockholm. Most of these are certified under both IATA CEIV (Centre of Excellence for Independent Validators) and GDP (Good Distribution Practices).

Close work with customers
WFS works closely with airlines and forwarders when planning its temperature-controlled facilities. For example, in Paris, where it has its biggest dedicated pharma site, “from the flexibility of temperature control in each of the chambers, to the specially designed cool dollies and workflows through the building, we worked with our customers to ensure we met their requirements and offered best-in-class solutions”, says Batten. “This is a process we have repeated in other key markets.”

Digitalisation programmes
WFS is now implementing a warehouse digitalisation programme to improve overall real-time visibility of all shipments, including pharma. This will enable more detailed track and trace as well as proactive CAPA (corrective and preventive action) reporting.
Fellow handler Swissport operates 16 CEIV (or otherwise) certified Pharma Centres across the globe; its state-of-the-art facilities at pharma hubs like Basel, Brussels and Frankfurt offer advanced end-to-end cooling, and digitalisation is among its ongoing projects at all of its air cargo centres.
Priscila Marques, Swissport’s global operations manager for cargo, outlines: “We have rolled out our Swissport kiosks in locations such as Madrid, Barcelona, Johannesburg, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Vienna. In 2022, this technology will go live in several locations in the USA. The self-service kiosks bring obvious advantages in process improvement, efficiency, and security, but also offer the data to digitise and optimise the entire landside import and export process.”
The landside management system provides a driver database through a web-based platform, with slot booking and a fully integrated door management system. Swissport has been connecting it with airport community systems – such as those in Amsterdam, Brussels, Liege, Frankfurt and Johannesburg – allowing forwarders to use the cargo community system across all handling agents while benefiting from Swissport’s own digital capabilities, Marques says.

Airline initiatives
Airlines are by no means lagging in their efforts to support the pharma industry. Qatar Airways is among those investing in more temperature-controlled trucks – what Guillaume Halleux, chief officer cargo at Qatar Airways, describes as “one of the cornerstones of our Pharma Product success” – for ramp transport at Doha.
There will also be a new service offering within the carrier’s QR Pharma portfolio that will cater to an untapped segment based on industry demand. This will be revealed in the near future, Halleux promises.
Meanwhile, Qatar Airways Cargo has introduced a new state-of-the-art, single-platform, cloud-based temperature monitoring solution at its Doha hub to enhance quality control, and is studying thermal cover offerings to provide additional protection for shipments that will travel complex routings and weather profiles.
In addition, Halleux says: “We have continued to expand our temperature-controlled container leasing options in the market with our partners Envirotainer, CSafe, DoKaSch, Skycell, Va-Q-tec, and a new solution will be announced soon.”

Logistics providers’ role
Logistics specialists have also continued developing their pharma infrastructure and capabilities over the years. UPS Healthcare, for example, last year invested in over 36,000sqm of cold chain GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) coolers and freezers globally, including new and upgraded GDP/GMP-compliant healthcare facilities in Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, the UK, the USA and Asia-Pacific. The company has also expanded its specialised temperature-controlled vehicle fleet across Benelux and Italy.
Cromb is confident that real-time tracking and digitalisation of pharmaceutical supply chains will continue to grow at pace, providing greater simplicity and visibility.
“Data and analytics are the bedrock, and we’ve now reached a point where the solutions are mature enough to be more widespread,” he says.
“We can now leverage that information in ways we weren’t able to before, be that sustainable packaging which can hold temperature-controlled packages for longer [or] our UPS Premier Service where we can classify and identify critical healthcare shipments before they leave our customers’ hands, offering them unprecedented control, visibility and reliability – while also tracking any package in our global network within a 3m radius.”
That service has helped UPS deliver more than 1.5 billion Covid vaccines to over 110 countries.
“It’s no secret the huge role at that air freight played in global [Covid] vaccine distribution, and as part of the 500 trade lanes that we mapped out globally a good portion of those included adding new air freight routes which were crucial in providing additional flexibility and efficiency,” Cromb goes on.
“We’re working in a very fluid environment and it’s up to us as an industry to plan resilience and flexibility in our supply chains, as well as build in contingencies.”
Another example is Qatar Airways Cargo’s rapid development and scale-up of a bespoke ‘QR COVID’ product to meet the urgent need for vaccine distribution.
“This has helped us support our customers across the world in transporting Covid-19 vaccines to the farthest reaches in very short periods of time without a single dose lost,” Halleux confirms. “We also enhanced the dry ice limitations on our aircraft within weeks to enable higher uplift of dry-ice-cooled vaccines.”

Relationships key
It seems that the greatest change resulting from the pandemic, though, is a rise in cross-industry collaboration, necessary to keep healthcare supplies – including new vaccines – flowing under immensely difficult circumstances.
For instance, WFS established a strong partnership with airlines and forwarders at Brussels Airport (BRU) that has guaranteed the seamless flow of more than 1 billion Covid vaccines through the handler’s brand-new CEIV-certified pharma facilities there.
Marques says the pandemic has emphasised the importance of a strong, certified supply chain. The growing global network of Swissport Pharma Centers is built on standardised pharma capabilities – which are published on the Validaide platform to allow lane risk assessment and supplier qualification – while real-time data about pharma shipments, flights, storage capacity and individual ULDs are available to customers in the Cargo Portal.
“Beyond that, we are also using digital tools to simplify and improve inspections of pharma shipments and infrastructure. All this ensures we can share data effectively and in real time, which is crucial for a strong collaboration within the cargo ecosystem,” she points out.

Early supply chain planning
UPS Healthcare, meanwhile, has helped all the major Covid vaccine manufacturers organise their supply chains from initial clinical trials to patients’ arms.
“By collaborating so closely, we’re able to understand each vaccine or treatment’s specific needs and plan the transport networks well in advance – allowing us to ship them globally as soon as they are approved,” Cromb adds.
Given the importance of understanding the customer, it is no surprise that shippers are highly valued at Pharma.Aero, a collaborative portal that focuses on the transport of medicines and other healthcare shipments by air.

Cooperation platform
In August 2020, Pharma.Aero teamed up with TIACA on Project Sunrays, which examined Covid-19 vaccine transport requirements and global air freight readiness, and sought to create useful guidelines for the handling, storage and transport of Covid-19 vaccines once they became available.
“On one hand, we provided the air cargo industry with clarity on the needs and expectations of vaccine manufacturers and better visibility on future Covid-19 vaccine supply chain specifications impacting logistics; on the other hand, we provided vaccine manufacturers and pharma shippers with more visibility on existing air cargo capabilities (infrastructure on the ground, air freight capacity and expertise) as well as better understanding of the constraints and needs of air cargo providers working to serve them adequately,” Pharma.Aero chair Trevor Caswell explains.

Better understanding between stakeholders
All stakeholders – including shippers – have upped their transparency since Covid-19 first emerged. Julian Wann, associate director global freight and logistics at AstraZeneca, observes: “I think we have set the platform to continue in that way; we have better visibility and understanding of what really happens within our supply chains, and throughout the business we have better insight on the challenges the airlines and forwarders face.
“Maintaining openness and transparency will only help to build on the trust we have and ensure we continue to improve in all areas of the pharma supply chain. Ultimately, the beneficiaries will be patients globally.”
The pandemic saw AstraZeneca develop new lanes and routes in the face of capacity constraints – the sort of problem solving that would no doubt have been more difficult without having already established close relationships with airlines and forwarders. “After all, we share the same goal: getting medicines to patients as quickly as we can,” Wann points out.
Currently, AstraZeneca is looking at how it can improve performance levels and optimise shipments.

Collaborative effort
“It’s a truly collaborative approach to ensure we always deliver for patients,” Wann observes. “Our Process team in Logistics and Global Procurement work closely with our freight partners in order to maintain and improve how we are moving product. Global Procurement has to understand what is required by the business in order to secure the correct service and focus on getting the right price for the right service.”
In the coming years, as passenger numbers pick up, Wann hopes to see a shift towards pre-Covid pricing, capacity and availability – at least as far as “something that will more consistently enable us to plan more accurately and budget with confidence”.
Pharma.Aero involves its members, including shippers, in all aspects of its work. Its UAV project, for example, initially aimed to bring together two parallel transport modes – air cargo and drone delivery – and map the last-mile delivery of pharma products to remote areas. But it soon became clear that the shipper holds a very important role in the process, and should thus play a very important part in the project.
“This resulted in planning the third phase of the project… where real shipments of pharma product are being transported from a production plant in Europe to patients in Malawi,” Caswell says.
Pharma.Aero will create a road map of this particular transfer that could be extended and adapted to other contexts. Caswell says this will provide insight into how operations could be planned for faster, safer and more efficient pharma deliveries to remote locations using drones.

Accelerating access
The healthcare industry is a highly interconnected group, united by common objectives. While the environment remains competitive, Halleux believes the increased collaboration across industry groups, with shippers and supply chain partners, is here to stay. He is looking forward to a new normal where the lessons learnt during the pandemic will propel the industry forward.
“The pandemic was a vivid example of how quickly the healthcare industry and all supply chain partners reacted and responded to resolve the kind of challenges that were more dynamic than ever,” he says. “If it was not the Covid-19 vaccines, it was the Covid-19 treatments, the distribution of PPE or oxygen concentrators or test kits and raw material that changed by the day and week, that displayed a true spirit of purpose and determination in the industry where everyone came together to offer solutions.”
The importance of communication and collaboration with the authorities in contending with Covid-19 is also significant. Jeff Kemprecos, director of communications, government affairs and market access at GSK, Gulf region, says: “In the Gulf, as manufacturers we found ourselves at GSK on daily calls with health authorities, air cargo carriers and freight forwarders looking for ways to accelerate licensing, importation permission and delivery dates.
“In the case of the UAE, we were able to shave more than 50% off the original delivery timeline, enabling Abu Dhabi to achieve the first deliveries of our new Covid-19 therapeutic before any other country.
“What we hope now, going forward, is that this agile, flexible and collaborative mindset will prevail as we look for ways to accelerate patient access to cutting-edge medicines and vaccines in the region,” he adds.
Indeed, Kemprecos is confident that this is already proving to be the case in the Gulf region.
“As a global community, the pandemic imposed tremendous costs on people and economies,” he says. “I’d like to think that if there were a silver lining, at least here in the Gulf we will emerge stronger as partners working very closely together to speed important new vaccines and medicines to the people who need them.”