Ask the Expert: The Vital Role Cold Chain Technology Will Play During COVID-19 and Beyond

Ask the expert, Pharmaceuticals

Pharmaceutical manufacturers that are racing to develop vaccines for the coronavirus are already working behind the scenes to build the supply chains needed to deliver these precious treatments to billions of people globally as quickly as possible. Rapidly distributing a safe and effective vaccine globally is likely to be one of the most significant challenges ever undertaken by supply chains.  

What are the anticipated and continued impacts of COVID-19 on the cold chain? 

Already stretched thin by the pandemic, manufacturers and freight companies have been facing problems ranging from shrinking capacity on container ships and cargo aircraft to a lack of visibility as to when a vaccine will arrive. For years, shippers have struggled to reduce cumbersome paperwork and manual processes by upgrading old technologies that, unless they are addressed soon, may slow the transport of fragile vials of medicine in unprecedented quantities. Supporting pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors to ensure a strong continuum of efficient supply chain logistics will be essential.  

Maintaining the strict temperature control of vaccines while they are distributed and stored to ensure they maintain their quality and integrity will pose significant challenges throughout the value chain. Complicating matters is that the vaccine candidates have differing storage requirements. One vaccine candidate must be stored at –20 degrees C, while another must be maintained at –80 degrees C. These will require different distribution and storage pathways, requiring additional planning and strategy. 

One of the lessons learned from the pandemic has been on reshaping supply chains, as key takeaways begin to emerge on long-term business resilience. Many experts agree that the current state of the temperature-controlled supply chain is not quite ready for the increased volume. Now is the time to incorporate efficiencies and agility within the cold chain so that the world can safely receive the needed vaccinations. 

Current strategies aimed at global efficiency are no longer enough to keep up with our new normal. In the coming months and years, global pharmaceutical supply chains will need to future proof themselves by incorporating a culture and practices to achieve greater resiliency through collaboration and information sharing.

The pharmaceutical and life sciences supply chains are complex with multiple distribution centers, shipping modalities, and hand-off points. All these elements pose some level of risk for your products to have some type of excursion.   

Real-time supply chain monitoring solutions offer complete visibility into your shipping, distribution, and warehousing operations. Beyond having supply chain visibility, consider how much of the product release process can be automated through pre-set business rules within the technology you’re using. These business rules help your quality teams manage product releases by exception. This means that quality assurance professionals no longer must dig through reams of siloed or incomplete data, often, months after a shipment has already been delivered. The real-time visibility solution from Controlant allows customers to clearly define which conditions result in a product being rejected or released without anyone having to log in and manually update the status.  

Technology’s role   

Digitally connected supply chain visibility technology has created enormous value for global pharmaceutical companies and supply chain logistics providers, which are now looking for other areas that can automate. This is now rendering improved data and process flows across the supply chain network as a tremendous opportunity for optimizing their operations and supply chain efficiency. COVID-19 has exposed longstanding vulnerabilities and exacerbated the need for supply chains to remove silos and achieve greater efficiency and transparency. Technology provides a means to improve visibility while increasing the automation of processes and workflows across the value chain. 

Supply chain leaders are beginning to see the value of visibility technology not only in supporting their quality and compliance efforts, but in connecting parties across the supply chain. These stakeholders can monitor, track, and report product condition and location information and utilize the information to improve the segments of the supply chain that they are responsible for. Manufacturers using real-time technology maintain ownership of their supply chain data, while sharing key metrics with their freight forwarders and logistics providers. Likewise, distributors can utilize real-time technology to deliver enhanced customer service to their clients. 

Today, advanced analytics are available through IoT data loggers and cloud technology. Active shipment information and long-term supply chain performance data supports rapid decision-making and responsiveness to changes in demand and the market generally. If a temperature deviates beyond required boundaries, alerts are sent to designated recipients to facilitate corrective action and prevent product waste. 

Beyond having visibility over temperature, quality, and location of vaccines and pharmaceutical products, real-time technology can be leveraged by supply chain stakeholders to automate processes and workflows. For example, by segmenting only shipments with temperature excursions, quality teams can focus their efforts on at-risk products, thereby saving operational costs and manual review work. Shipment reports displaying the time, temperature, and location of products at the time of an excursion help expedite root cause analyses and facilitates the corrective and preventive action (CAPA) process. 

In addition, real-time monitoring technology enables participants to monitor other types of aberrations in their supply chains that might impact the integrity or security of their products. Companies can define key metrics to track, like unusual light events (indicating tampering, theft, or a door opening that might cause temperature to fluctuate inside a container), or shipments being delayed, separated, or arriving at the wrong destination. This information can trigger a workflow that requires the freight forwarder, carrier, or another service provider to respond to these escalations immediately. Dashboard analytics can also be tracked. Through real-time technology, companies can increase their responsiveness to deviations and supply chain changes.

Thinking ahead 

No pharmaceutical business can afford to rest on its laurels for too long; irrespective of whether there is an ongoing pandemic, each firm has a vested interest in visibility, transparency, and resiliency.  

As manufacturers and supply chain logistics providers are forced into adapting their supply chains to reduce risk, increase responsiveness, and plan for the future, technology will play a central role in this evolution. Collaboration and information sharing among participants will be key to strengthening the efficiency and effectiveness of supply chains across the industry.  

Companies should consider how they can transform their supply chain operating model from a rigid, linear supply chain to an agile, networked ecosystem in which all parties work collectively. In addition to supporting quality and compliance efforts, achieving end-to-end supply chain visibility through technology can improve operational efficiency and substantially decrease waste and costs.  

In the near-term, faced with the massive challenge of distributing billions of doses of COVID-19 vaccinations globally, human lives will, quite literally, depend on these efforts.

This article is taken from Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and Packing Sourcer November 2020, pages 19-21. © Samedan Ltd

About Ada Palmadottir

Ada Palmadottir is Business Development Director at Controlant. With more than 20 years of experience in pharmacy, management, and technology, Ada has extensive international experience in sales, operations, and marketing, specifically in the areas of product, vertical alliance sales, and partnerships related to pharmaceutical products. She is a licensed and experienced pharmacist and earned a Master of Pharmacy from the University of Iceland and a Master of Business Administration from the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo. Ada has been working with Controlant for more than ten years.