Relay race

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The multi-dimensional challenges of transporting pharma products by air require better soft and technical skills, consistent processes, and greater standardisation, writes Megan Ramsay

The transport of pharmaceutical and life science products by air is improving. But the multi-dimensional challenges of safely transporting these complex, life-sustaining products require better soft and technical skills, consistent processes, and greater standardisation, as well as better physical infrastructure, delegates heard at this year’s Cool Chain Association Pharma & Biosciences Conference in Dubai.

Kim Winter, global CEO of Logistics Executive Group, observed: “Nowadays we have many of the same issues that we faced when I started in this industry in 1989: things like trust, collaboration, cost, safety and security. But things are more sophisticated now in terms of technology and data.

“We need an open debate about where we can go as an industry; let’s be undiplomatic and controversial if need be. We need to close the gap between where we are and where we want to be.”

How, then, might this gap be closed?

According to Youssef Beydoun, head of cargo planning and compliance at Dubai Airports, there are two key issues: “You have to consider the role of people involved in the process – for instance, think about when the Chinese built the Great Wall to prevent aggressors entering, but didn’t train people to protect it,” he noted. “So training (which is part of CEIV and other programmes like it) is important.”

Second, the authorities play a major role. “We need to eliminate as many steps in the process as possible, because each step exposes cargo to the elements,” Beydoun explained. “Not to toot our own horn, but the air-to-air process at DXB/DWC is one of a kind. The world could learn from this. The authorities have a role in making this corridor secure.”


But there are numerous challenges to be overcome before the cool chain can improve the services it provides – particularly given the wide variation in standards from one country or region to another. Muhammad Naseer Haider, senior cargo operations manager at Sharjah Aviation Services, offers the example of CEIV certification. “Since obtaining certification, we have faced challenges because of a lack of awareness among manufacturers, shippers and forwarders of what we are trying to implement. We are the first to have it in the region and that brings many challenges. If IATA or the authorities can implement some common procedures based on a common platform for everyone, this will change,” he said – but that does not seem likely to happen overnight.

Gino Vleugels, senior manager for temperature control at Johnson & Johnson EMEA, pointed out that it can be difficult to establish a dialogue with the authorities. With the first draft of the EU’s GDP guidelines, “we could review and comment so the guidelines are good but also workable”, he noted. “But elsewhere, compliance can increase cost.”

One of the biggest problems in the supply chain, according to Expeditors’ global director for healthcare Andrew Lester, is the focus on temperature control rather than GDP as a whole. “It is important, of course, but without training and the right processes, we might as well put a herd of monkeys in charge,” he said. “We need clear guidelines on how to manage GDP. There is huge variation in how the authorities approach it too – for instance, an audit in the UK could take two days, while in Belgium we had one that took seven hours, and one in the US lasted only 45 minutes.”

The weakest link

He continued: “We need to consider the origin, destination and transhipments – we are only as strong as our weakest link. Global consistency in the interpretation and enforcement of GDP would help the whole community. Meanwhile, we have to try and choose a high enough level, because there is a patient at the end of each shipment. With food, another cool chain product, you can tell if it’s off, if it smells bad or looks bad or tastes bad; we have years of evolution behind that. But with pharma, we don’t have that mechanism, so it is vital we get it right,” he stressed.

And ‘getting it right’ varies according to the shipment. Vleugels explained that there are higher- and lower-value goods, ranging from beauty products to biopharmaceuticals. There is a need for dialogue between shippers and forwarders to ensure the correct service is used for the product concerned – for instance, cool dollies may not always be necessary.

“We have no direct link with the airlines – we have to trust forwarders to give us a good service,” he pointed out. “Shippers value innovation and excellence; we appreciate all the efforts made to ensure our shipments are well looked after. For example, it used to be shippers’ responsibility to package shipments, but now we can rely on forwarders and airlines to do it, which makes our life easier and more cost-effective.”

Therese Puetz, CEO of Karavan Consulting, finds the continuing lack of communication between shippers and airlines surprising – but Lester is keen to point out that this situation is improving, as forwarders are understanding shippers’ needs better than ever before and airlines are stepping up to provide the required services. Those airports that offer top-of-the-range services and facilities are also playing their part, as their customers demand a similar level of investment and innovation at other gateways.

Still, Puetz feels more needs to be done. “We need more alignment and transparency in the ‘controlled room temperature’ segment; shippers can’t pay general cargo prices and expect CRT service. There is a link between the value of a product and the affordability of the logistics solutions offered.”

There is also the challenge of modal shift, particularly when sea freight is innovating too. Some lines are introducing active containers, for example, but Lester feels there is a lack of understanding of GDP in the ocean freight sector. “Compliance stands at 51-52% at best (at worst it’s about 30%). Shipping lines have got policies in place but the handling process is as for general cargo,” he observed. “So sea freight is less expensive than air freight, but what’s going on in the background is less sophisticated.”


Real-time tracking and the digitalisation of many documents allow for the collection of an enormous amount of data these days. But how well is that data being shared, Winter wondered? Could it be used more effectively?

Beydoun suggested: “Data can be given to authorities before arrival so they can determine whether the cargo should be inspected or sent straight to the consignee. Also, we could get the authorities engaged in our activities. In Dubai, the Ministry of Health is now at the airport. Customs is also right there in the cool centre facility. What about destination airports, though?” he asked.

Either way, Puetz noted that today tenders take the form of a ‘request for solutions’, which requires more information regarding the service provider’s qualifications as well as technical data. That data helps customers to make a more informed choice.

A greater degree of transparency regarding capabilities would be helpful, however– for instance, if there are no cool facilities at a destination airport, then different packaging might be required.

And where the final customer or patient is in a very remote location, it might be necessary to think laterally in order to safeguard the integrity of the product.

Summing up his view on the situation, Winter said: “There is no silver bullet to close the gap. There is no single point of responsibility when it comes to maintaining margins while maintaining product integrity. This sector is three-dimensional, if not more-dimensional – it’s complex. What should we as a community focus on to get the best results in the medium to long term?” he asked.

There are several answers to that question. Winter suggests a focus on soft skills alongside technical training to ensure the next generation of leaders is well equipped. For Beydoun, it is simply a matter of each member of the supply chain living up to his or her responsibility. For Haider, it comes down to consistency, with IATA’s CEIV programme being the place to start. Vleugels, meanwhile, recalled: “All shippers in this sector care about people; that’s why we do what we do, so [the supply chain should] bear that in mind.”

Linked to this is Puetz’s call for collaboration among all stakeholders – moving away from finger-pointing to a community approach where shared planning and processes help to mitigate risk.

It is the pharmaceutical manufacturer that bears the responsibility if medication is not up to scratch. Standard operating procedures must be enacted and handovers in the supply chain managed seamlessly to avoid temperature excursions. Investment in facilities and equipment, alignment of standards and processes, staff training, data sharing, certification: all of these elements, implemented as part of a community approach in which all partners fulfil their responsibilities to each other, can help to build trust among shippers that the cool chain will take good care of these temperature-sensitive items.

Lester concluded, emphasising the need for openness, communication and data sharing: “This is a relay race. If one of us drops the baton the whole thing is pointless. We all have to live up to our responsibilities to the patient at the end of the day.”

For more from the event round up view the full feature on page 16 of our Winter digital edition