In Sickness and in Health

Putting our Trust in the Pharma Supply Chain

When we take medication, we expect it to help us get better. We trust that each specific formulation of chemicals will heal our illnesses and improve our health. But do we ever think about how a medication’s journey can affect its effectiveness?

The next time you go to the pharmacy to buy cold medicine, take a second to consider the path it had to take to get into your hands. From the manufacturer to the shipper to the airline to the consignee to the distributor to the pharmacist… across oceans and skies, these products travel long distances and pass through many hands. And throughout their journey, pharmaceuticals and healthcare products need to be kept within strict temperature ranges at all times. If the product’s temperature goes above or below those limits, it won’t be accepted by the consignee or by customs at the destination.

The requirements for transporting healthcare products are much stricter than the requirements for general cargo – and for good reason. The goods can be damaged if they aren’t kept within the right temperature range, and in this case, damage doesn’t just mean monetary loss. At best, the damaged medications may be less effective than they should be. At worst, they could be harmful to the recipient’s health. Therefore, it’s crucial that stakeholders throughout every step of the supply chain take great care when transporting pharmaceuticals.

In this issue of AFL, we spoke with a few well-known experts on the subject of transporting pharmaceuticals and healthcare products: Mr. Stavros Evangelakakis, Product Manager Cargolux and member of the Keepcool Team .; and Mr. Bart Pouwels, Director Business Development Cargo, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. Both men are known around the industry as the leading pharma, life science and cold chain experts for their respective companies.

Our Health in Good Hands

No matter who you are or where you live, pharmaceuticals are important to your health. That’s why it’s so crucial that the products are transported in the right way. Mr. Evangelakakis puts it plainly, “At the end of the day, healthcare is a commodity which you and I may be consumers of today, and tomorrow, our children.

Stavros Evangelakakis, Cargolux

Stavros Evangelakakis, Product Manager, Cargolux

“So I think we have a big responsibility to take the utmost care of the pharma supply chain. Vaccines, blood serums, insulin all need to be specially handled. For example, if you have a vaccine and it gets frozen during the transport process, it’s now worthless. It’s no longer effective. So these goods must travel in a certain temperature range. In order to achieve that, the importance is the process, the training and the understanding.”

At Cargolux we created a new product department to handle and promote this type of commodity, and over the last ten years we have done tremendous work to accommodate healthcare. Internally, we have the Keepcool team, a cross-divisional team, including sales, operations, engineers, flight operations, the export-import team, all meeting together every month. We discuss and exchange ideas, work on the process, go to conferences built up network, so that we stay on the cutting edge of this business.”

Mr. Pouwels emphasizes the importance of well-defined procedures when handling cold chain products like pharmaceuticals, “

What really makes the difference in pharma is the process.

The ground handler, for example, has to know, how much time does your cargo spend on the ground? How fast can you get an inbound shipment to be picked up by a trucking company?” A well-tuned process operated by experienced staff ensures lower risk of a temperature excursion during the transport process.

As the world’s population grows, the market for healthcare grows, and pharmaceutical transport will only become more important as time goes on. “Just take a look at the numbers coming out of Europe.  A lot of healthcare products  are being exported out of Europe. Developing economies all over the world, like the BRIC countries, are starting to invest in healthcare, so they’re importing more as well as producing their own. Healthcare is a stable business,” says Mr. Evangelakakis.

Regulatory Details

Bart Pouwels, Schiphol

Bart Pouwels, Director Business Development Cargo, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol

Because unbroken cold chains are so important to pharma transportation, there are a number of regulatory bodies that oversee the industry. In the United States, for instance, the FDA and the USDA have been some the leading proponents of strict standards for pharma and healthcare products imported into the country. Within the EU, the GDP, or Good Distribution Practice, has been published by the European Commission to act as a guide for the proper distribution of medicinal products for human use.

Mr. Pouwels explains, “Within the pharma industry, we have the GDP as a governmental rule from the EU. It’s very strict; if a medicine must be kept between 2 to 8°C, there must be evidence to prove that it has been kept within that range throughout the entire supply chain. The monitoring starts at the manufacturing process, then it moves onto the freight forwarder, then the airport, and in the end, the trucking company, which has to deliver according to GDP rules.”

If you go for GDP certification, you go through an independent auditor, who is auditing you based on GDP requirements. Then you get a certificate. With a GDP certificate, you take your business to the next level.”

Cargolux was the world’s first GDP certified airline

, and the carrier also does its best to ensure that the forwarders and trucking companies it works with are certified as well. The importance of the pharma supply chain is becoming more and more clear across the industry, as IATA has even started a new certification initiative: the Center of Excellence for Independent Validators (CEIV) for pharmaceutical handling.

An Airport’s Role

Facilities are where the airport can really make a difference. “We have to look at the number of special pharma facilities we have. At Schiphol, we have several different ones, and two freight forwarders right on the tarmac – they nearly have ramp access – with GDP certified locations,” adds Mr. Pouwels. Modern, well-placed, certified pharma facilities are key to a smooth cargo-handling process.

As a neutral party, an airport can also work together with stakeholders to make sure things run smoothly. “Very often, we work together with Dutch customs, because, as I said earlier, the process is extremely important. To make it fast, we need approval from customs, who see us as a neutral player. Because we don’t have commercial agreements that would cause a conflict of interest, we can facilitate the business to grow. I think that transparency is very important in this process as well, so I am trying to gain an understanding of the freight forwarders’ priorities vs. the handling agents’ priorities. We talk to all the companies at Schiphol and ask them, what do you do and how can we help you with that process? We don’t force anyone to do anything, and we don’t want to intervene in the market. We try to help everyone improve collectively,” says Mr. Pouwels.