How to supply drugs to remote areas of the globe

Melissa Russell

Bisk Education

Melissa Russell discusses the importance of supply chain management in order to mitigate the risks of pharmaceutical drug distribution in remote areas of the world.

When most people think about global health crises, impediments to remote pharmaceutical distribution typically aren’t among the first things that spring to mind. However, supply chain management (SCM), the practical application of the science of logistics, is as critical to the pharmaceutical industry as any other global enterprise, and the distribution of lifesaving drugs to remote areas of the globe is a pressing concern for millions of consumers and most international pharmaceutical companies.

Keeping drugs at their ideal temperature is perhaps the most serious challenge that pharmaceutical SCM presents. Preserving a cool storage environment in, for instance, rural South Africa is far from easy. According to DHL, a premier worldwide pharmaceutical SCM provider, pharma-grade facilities offer, at the very least, refrigerated and controlled ambient environments, specialized low-temperature storage zones, secure drug vaults, and round-the-clock security and monitoring. Unless an outlying distribution center is owned and maintained by a specialized SCM provider, it’s unlikely to meet these strict but essential criteria.


“Keeping drugs at their ideal temperature is perhaps the most serious challenge that pharmaceutical SCM presents.”


Drug transit is equally — if not more — problematic. In addition to the difficulty of maintaining appropriate temperatures, transporters often face limited road access, inaccurate directions, and low or unpredictable levels of patient compliance. Scheduled deliveries are therefore rarely guaranteed, rendering sensitive drugs subject to gaps in the “cold chain” that could leave them less effective and sometimes even worthless. Inclement weather, muddy roads, mechanical errors, unreliable carriers, and restricted storage spaces in rural hospitals, the latter of which necessitate ongoing same-day deliveries, compound an already complex set of issues.

And if that weren’t enough: ambush, theft, and tampering also plague worldwide drug distribution. Armed bandits capitalize on low product visibility during transit, exploiting the oftentimes interminable border delays, road closures and unpredictable weather events that can break or lengthen a supply chain. Corrupt or inept border security officials can slow transit for days or even weeks, all while sensitive drugs spoil in high temperatures, vulnerable to theft or tampering.

Weak or non-existent pharmaceutical regulatory and enforcement systems frequently aggravate the situation as well. The resultant rise in what the World Health Organization (WHO) terms “spurious, falsely-labeled, falsified or counterfeit (SFFC) medicine” presents a deep concern for anyone with a vested interest in pharmaceutical distribution and global good health.


“Weak or non-existent pharmaceutical regulatory and enforcement systems frequently aggravate the situation…”


The future of pharmaceutical SCM

A popular saying in logistics, “freight at rest is freight at risk”, is particularly true for pharmaceuticals, which not only lose potency over time unless properly handled, but can also decline in value if too much time elapses between an order and its fulfilment. Currently, that time elapses far too often: according to Nilay Shah of the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, “it is not unusual for the overall [pharmaceutical] supply chain cycle time to be 300 days.”

With conscientious improvements to those supply chains, however, pharmaceutical companies can service even the most remote areas of the globe in a timely and profitable fashion. The first step is to enhance security according to criteria established by federal initiatives. Voluntary “safe commerce” programs such as the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) and the Container Security Initiative (CSI) reward compliant businesses by green-lighting their products at border crossings. Compliance entails proving extensive employee background checks, regular verification (via photo badge) of onsite employees, and routine examination of shipping containers for error or tampering.

In a similar initiative, U.S. Customs &amp, Border Protection (CBP) will now green-light products shipped in “smart” containers that include high-tech tamper proofing and ID features, as long as the supplier has provided shipping info one full day in advance. Participating companies are assigned an account manager to assist in the event of unexpected delays or hassles. Although the requirements to participate in each of these programs are intensive, and typically require an initial investment of time and money, the pay-off is ongoing and — unlike the product quality — should increase significantly over time.


“…a broken pharmaceutical supply chain can be costly, time-consuming, and devastating to human health and wellness.”


In addition to enhancing operational security, international pharmaceutical providers can also speed delivery by establishing close relationships with carriers who uphold the highest standards, such as DHL, UPS, and FedEx. Once more, keeping drugs cold no matter the environmental conditions is essential, and all carriers should be carefully vetted for their ability to do so. The World Health Organization has declared the difficulty of maintaining cool conditions through every link in a drug’s supply chain a contributing factor to the prevalence of SFFC “medicine”.

It stands to reason that a broken pharmaceutical supply chain can be costly, time-consuming, and devastating to human health and wellness. Pharmaceutical producers are therefore in a unique position to make money by making a difference. In the coming years, those that enhance their supply chain and container security, insure temperature-appropriate storage and transport conditions and achieve federal compliance could see record financial returns by offering reliable, timely shipment of life-saving drugs to the most isolated places on earth.


About the author:

Melissa Russell writes on internet marketing and supply chain management. She also writes on topics such as business administration and negotiation for a number of universities through the University Alliance. Find Melissa on Twitter @M_L_Russell.

How can pharma further improve supply chain management?