Focus sharpens on pharma expertise

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The burgeoning global pharmaceutical industry has relied heavily on the speed of air cargo for moving this high-value, temperature-sensitive cargo. Indeed, pharma shipping has in recent years become the fastest-growing segment of the international air freight sector – and the only major commodity type to consistently achieve yield increases – and cargo carriers, forwarders and handlers have attempted to secure their share of the market through branded and specialised products and services.

Key to the whole process of shipping pharmaceuticals is keeping each and every shipment within defined temperature parameters. According to Pharmaceutical Commerce figures, 11.7% of the US$64 billion spent in 2013 on pharmaceutical logistics was dedicated to maintaining the appropriate temperature throughout the transport chain.

Historically, there have been an enormous number of different regionally based regulations for airlines, handlers and forwarders to comply with, such as the EU’s Good Distribution Practice, or GDP, but no global certification standards. Perhaps as a result, shippers have struggled to identify potential partners to secure the quality of their pharma shipments throughout the worldwide supply chain.

IATA has sought to fill the void by offering a global industry standard, doing so through its ‘Centre of Excellence for Independent Validators in Pharmaceutical Handling’ programme, or CEIV Pharma. This consists of a process of recurrent training and assessment against set regulations and standards – which may require the company involved to make significant changes within its business. This is then followed by audit and – hopefully – validation and certification of the enterprise as a ‘Premium Pharmaceutical Handling Centre’ or ‘Centre of Excellence’. Recertification takes place every two years subsequent to initial validation, while those individual trainees who successfully pass the four specialised courses required are awarded an IATA Pharmaceutical Handling Diploma.

“It’s a win-win situation for all,” says Ronald Schaefer, head of IATA consulting, cargo and ground handling, noting the attractiveness of the programme to regulators, shippers, ground handlers, airlines and the association itself.

Although gaining certification may typically take two to four months, the hope is that “everyone who handles pharma products [in the supply chain] will get certified”, he adds.

Success in Singapore

The example of the Coolport cool-chain handling facility at Changi International Airport, the first facility to be certified as a Centre of Excellence in Pharmaceutical Handling by IATA, offers evidence of the benefits of such certification, as well as the work it takes to achieve it.

According to Ronald Yeo, senior vice president for cargo services at Coolport’s operator, SATS, the certification process took about three months to complete, and involved three key points: First, an assessment of SATS Coolport’s handling procedures and policies for pharmaceutical handling against international standards, in particular adherence to IATA’s Temperature Control Regulations, and best practices. Second, as a consequence, enhancements being made to SATS Coolport’s dedicated pharmaceutical zone for acceptance and delivery of pharmaceutical shipments, to ensure that it adhered to GDP guidelines for pharmaceutical handling. And finally, a process of skills upgrading that has involved as many as 80 SATS Coolport staff, employees who are still undergoing a specialised training programme that will lead to them attaining the Diploma in Pharmaceutical Handling, mentioned above.

Yeo insists that the IATA certification process represented only the latest and most rigorous chapter in the story of Coolport’s efforts to be recognised as a premier cool-chain handling business. Many global pharmaceutical companies had already audited SATS Coolport and its work processes to pre-qualify the facility for their transshipments, for example.

Nevertheless, he notes that, in opting for the IATA certification, SATS “saw an opportunity to invest and enhance our offerings to provide our airline customers with value-added propositions, and to reach out to a broader group of pharmaceutical companies, some of which may not have the time and resources to conduct facility audits at SATS Coolport”.

Yeo believes that being a Centre of Excellence gives pharmaceutical company partners a “guarantee of excellence in service” and helps them save resources on facility audits; it also provides airlines and global shippers with the further assurance that their pharmaceutical shipments are being handled to the most exacting standards. In so doing, the certification has served “to promote Singapore as an even more attractive pharmaceutical air freight hub”, he claims.

Clear benefits

The evidence of the value of all that hard work is clear, he believes. Following certification, SATS has seen an increased number of airlines routeing their pharmaceutical air freight through SATS Coolport. And, in March this year, Coolport handled its largest-ever pharmaceutical shipment, one that consisted of more than 20 specially insulated containers requiring exceptionally careful handling on behalf of a Japanese customer.

Moving forward, Coolport is looking to further extend its cold-chain capabilities across the SATS network, making further investments across Asia in order to capture its share of the high growth in pharmaceutical air freight, as well as the demand for what Yeo describes as the “end-to-end, assured handling of high-value pharmaceutical products”.

Next up?

The Brussels pharma logistics community has also seen the potential value of the IATA programme and is keen to seize the benefits of Centre of Excellence certification. Brussels International Airport has long served as a gateway to the world for the Belgian capital’s extensive pharmaceutical cluster. All of the big five pharma companies have a footprint in Belgium and the industry is an undoubted priority for the Belgian Government and for the city, as well as for BRUcargo, the freight operation of Brussels International.

As soon as the airport set up its own separate freight unit, BRUcargo saw the potential of the city’s cool-chain sector, especially pharmaceutical traffic, explains Brussels Airport’s head of cargo, Steven Polmans.

Meanwhile, everyone involved in the aviation industry’s pharma business was talking about the need to align procedures and for all concerned to adhere to globally standardised processes, he continues, with Brussels Airport Company thus taking the decision to begin the process in the Belgian capital. “Based on the EU’s GDP guidelines for responsible pharma shipping, we took the decision to introduce a certification process, one covering forwarders, handlers, trucking companies and carriers – the entire supply chain.”

A member of the Cool Chain Association (CCA) as well as the International Air Transportation’s Time and Temperature Task Force (TTTF), in many ways Brussels Airport Company was ahead of the curve, he insists, through its engagement not just with handlers but with all aspects of the cool chain, including the pharmaceutical giants.

But there was obviously much to be gained by partnering with IATA and sharing each other’s experience and expertise in this field. Brussels proved itself a “strong supporter and has assisted in fine-tuning the Pharma CEIV programme, providing valuable input on standards, the programme itself, training, etc”, IATA’s Schaefer points out.

Moreover, in June, Brussels Airport Company announced that it had invited the whole of the BRUcargo air freight community to join the effort to “upgrade, align and standardise the pharma handling processes as well as to train industry stakeholders through the entire supply chain on and around the airport in order to improve the handling of pharmaceutical cargo”.

The first phase of the Brussels aspect of the certification programme will see 10 companies active in the pharma logistics cluster around the city begin the IATA training programme, with the expectation that they will gain the Association’s Certification of Excellence in October or November this year. IATA would describe this as a ‘Community’ approach, in which a group of businesses around an airport seek to be certified as Centres of Excellence and thereby create a ‘pharma gateway’.

Polmans confirms that the 10 organisations initially involved include an airline, handlers, trucking companies and “at least five forwarders”. A further 10 companies are expected to enter the IATA training programme later this year.

Brussels Airport won’t itself gain the Centre of Excellence certification but it will play a key role in facilitating the Belgian companies enrolling in the programme. It will pay for part of their IATA training fees, for example. In promoting the success of the pharma logistics cluster that surrounds the gateway, Brussels Airport Company will not only drive cool-chain shipping on and off its runways, it will “validate the quality of the country’s pharmaceutical business and confirm Brussels’ role as a leader in innovation”, Polmans says.

More to come

Of course, Brussels and its pharma logistics community are not the only players looking to get involved in the IATA programme. According to Schaefer, there’s been strong interest in the CEIV Pharma elsewhere in Asia and the association is now starting to promote it in North America as well.

Furthermore, IATA is said to be engaging key stakeholders and regulators across a number of European countries beyond Belgium and Schaefer expects to be “increasing that activity over the next couple of months in other parts of the world”.

So, with the apparent popularity of the programme and with so many in the air cargo sector keen to capture pharma traffic, shippers may soon have a worldwide tool to identify potential partners to secure the quality of their pharma supply chain.