Connecting the Dots in the Pharmaceutical Supply Chain

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of sitting down with FreightWaves’ Executive Publisher Kevin Hill, for an in-depth discussion of the challenges of tracking vaccine distribution in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was a part of the FreightWaves Health & Pharma Summit, which took place on February 10 and included leaders from MedSource Labs, McKinsey and Co., BoxLock and many others.

Kevin and I talked about the topic on everyone’s minds these days: COVID-19 vaccines. Obviously, vaccines are a huge part of the medical supply chain, and one that’s come under the spotlight in a big way over the past few months. But the industry is much bigger than that, encompassing pharmaceuticals, life sciences, health care, medical devices, and the suppliers that provide components to make the vaccines possible.

In many ways the medical and life science sectors can serve as an example for the rest of the logistics industry, since their supply chains often operate orders of magnitude above their counterparts in much of the rest of the business world. Here are some of the main points and key takeaways from our talk.

The Challenges

One of the biggest concerns at play here is sensitivity to the patient. Considering the value of the product being moved, both in real-world dollars and in lives being saved, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no margin for error in the medical supply chain than in other critical industries.

Because of this, it’s absolutely critical to maintain a clean, secure chain of custody for medical goods as they travel from the raw material providers, through distribution, and all the way to the end customer. You have to make sure that all the links in the supply chain are clean, and that any risk for contamination, exposure, theft, etc. has strong mitigation processes and contingencies in place.

Visibility plays a crucial role in ensuring this chain of command, control and custody remains unbroken throughout the product’s entire journey. By enabling stakeholders to accurately monitor product to a highly detailed level — including tracking totes and packages, and monitoring a shipment’s location, status and environmentals in real time — and to quickly and effectively communicate changes if/when they occur, visibility technology effectively creates a secure historical ledger of an order’s status throughout the duration of its time in transit.

Tune into the latest season of The Supply Chainiacs video podcast to hear me go over the ins and outs of real-time yard management systems. 

The Solutions

Considering the value of the goods in question — the total market values of pharmaceutical products being carried via parcel, courier, air freight and trucking is significant — it is imperative to have processes in place that allow you to monitor the progress of every package in transit at any given time.

Many companies focus on physical security practices in order to achieve this. The methods used may vary, from retaining third-party security services that follow the shipment’s progress, to dispatching decoy shipments, to enforcing mandates that the driver not stop the vehicle within the first and last 250 miles, since this is when thefts are most likely to occur.

IoT-based sensor tracking can augment these procedures with real-time data and alerts, granting companies even greater insight into the security and status of life-saving cargo. Knowing the physical location of the shipment at all times throughout the duration of the load allows companies to receive alerts immediately when a truck stops or goes off-route, as well as to know where the truck went after being diverted. It also offers the opportunity to set up “Red Zones,” or areas where issues are most likely to occur, and have the platform alert them when a load is approaching a designated high-risk area.

Of course, it’s not just theft or tampering that needs to be guarded against in the transportation of high-value pharmaceuticals. Even something as simple as a temporary refrigeration failure can have major impacts on the efficacy of a drug like the COVID-19 vaccine. Companies need to make sure that there are no break points in any of these critical systems which could very easily endanger lives if they were to be damaged or lost in transit.

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In summary, it all comes down to the idea of managing quality. In many industries, the idea of true quality assurance throughout the end-to-end supply chain simply doesn’t exist at the transaction level the way that it does within pharma, life sciences and healthcare. These companies simply don’t have the luxury of crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, as lives depend on their ability to deliver goods fully intact, on-time, and secure.

I always say that the three core values of any successful supply chain professional are grit, resilience, agility – the ability to respond to what’s going on in the moment. Adaptability is at the core of these virtues, and visibility is at the core of adaptability. If the need for each of these is compounded throughout the pharmaceutical supply chain, then so too is the need for strong, accurate data and real-time insight into what’s really happening on the ground. As with any industry, the simple fact is that disruptions will occur, and professionals within supply chain need to have the mindset, and the tools, to deal with them when they do.

You can watch the full video of my recording here, or check out some of the many other individual recordings from this summit online. Finally, if you wanted to read about some of our other insights on the supply chain industry on the FourKites Blog.

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