Pharmaceutical Supply Chains Under Quarantine
It’s fair to say that the coronavirus outbreak has caught the world off guard. As governments and industry continue to feel the crisis out and come up with the best solutions to its challenges, many people are left with more questions than answers.
Naturally, the increased restrictions on travel – especially across borders – and the lack of worker and drivers available to logistics providers is making it more challenging than ever to make sure products get where they need to be. While this isn’t such a problem when it comes to more frivolous and non-essential retail products, it is of great concern to those companies responsible for providing pharmaceuticals and other critical medical supplies.
How then is the coronavirus pandemic posing a challenge to the world of pharmaceutical logistics specifically and what is being done to meet these problems head on?
As convenience store and supermarket shelves remain empty of many essential products, people are naturally concerned about the availability of medicine and other healthcare items during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, one of the world’s major producers of active pharmaceutical ingredients and generic medicines is China. As most people know, China – and specifically Wuhan – is where all the evidence suggests this epidemic began and the country has been in lockdown since January. While many corners of the country’s manufacturing industry have remained active, this will have had an unavoidable impact on the productivity of companies operating in this sector. China has recently ended its lockdown and reported the first day with zero COVID-19 deaths.
However, the country will be slow to get back to full productivity and there is likely to be a knock-on effect on the availability of active pharmaceutical ingredients and generics as a result. This is not to mention the reduced trust the general public will have in Chinese produced products. This mistrust is likely unfounded but its an unavoidable reality of the situation and will put additional pressure on other countires to up their own production in response – countries which may still be deep within their own lockdowns rather than emerging from the other side like China.
Another major player in the pharmaceutical supply chain – especially when it comes to generics – is India. While still in lockdown, India has seen a comparably small number of coronavirus infections and deaths but must unfortunately still rely on China for many of the active ingredients required to make its medical products.
“India relies on China for a large percentage of the active pharmaceutical ingredients used to manufacture these drugs,” reports Cambridge Network. “APIs sourced from China to India may have begun to run out in February, according to the Financial Times. Generic drug manufacturers are already paying more for APIs in India and this will only get worse in the event Chinese manufacturing continues to lag due to the impact of COVID-19. Given the continuing business closures in China, it is likely that the cost of generic drugs manufactured in India will rise in the near future.”
While there are certainly going to be challenges when it comes to maintaining the flow of critical medicines and the ingredients used to make them, the news from the pharmaceutical industry is not all doom and gloom, and many brands in the sector are using their logistics heft to help fight the virus.
For example, industry heavyweight Roche has partnered with the World Health Organisation to develop, trial, and ship a new drug which they believe can combat COVID-19. Some preliminary reports have suggested that patients with severe COVID-19 disease develop cytokine release syndrome – an overshooting of the immune system. The trial will therefore seek to evaluate the safety of Actemra, which is used to treat other inflammatory diseases - cytokine release syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis.
The trial will seek to recruit 330 participants from all over the globe. So far, ten countries have signed up, including Argentina, Canada, France and Iran, which has a large outbreak, but not Italy or China, which have both experienced huge infection and death rates.
“I continue to be inspired by the many demonstrations of solidarity from all over the world,” said WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. ““Multiple small trials with different methodologies may not give us the clear, strong evidence we need about which treatments help to save lives.”
Obviously, this poses a significant logistics challenge to ensure that these treatments are distributed effectively, and results can be generalised across populations, but if any company has the infrastructure and industry expertise to make it happen, its one such as Roche. The untreatable nature of coronavirus is its biggest threat, so we’ll all be keeping our fingers crossed that this trial yields significant results.
Coronavirus will continue to affect pharma supply chains, but with industry heavyweights such as Roche leading the fightback, there is a good chance we’ll continue to see critical products getting through.
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