The Biggest Challenges Impacting Life Sciences and Pharmaceutical Supply Chains

In the life sciences industry, shipping is a high-stakes game. From clinical research to biological samples and, of course, pharmaceutical products, the freight produced by this industry can change and save lives. But handled poorly, it could also take them.

This additional level of risk makes shipping especially challenging. After all, the higher the stakes, the greater the complexity. Here are just a few of the ways this impacts modern life science supply chains—and the bottom line.

Safety first: Preventing dangerous and wasteful damage and contamination

Every industry deals with damaged freight from time to time, sometimes resulting in entire shipments being written off. But for the life sciences industry, the risk threshold looks very different, making the potential for waste much higher.

Say you were shipping boxes of lightbulbs. You’d want to know that the carrier was taking necessary precautions to prevent them from being smashed—but if a box arrived dented or slightly ripped, you wouldn’t lose sleep over it. As long as the lightbulbs inside were intact, the end consumer would neither know nor care.

That’s not the case with life science materials. If a box of pills gets damaged during transit, even if the pills inside look and probably are perfectly fine, the whole box must be discarded. The risk to the end-user is too high to chance it, as are the potential legal repercussions for the drug company.

Contamination is another major issue that life science shipments are particularly sensitive to. It’s vital for carriers to meet rigorous hygiene and safety standards because, unlike damage, contamination can be very difficult to spot until it’s too late. In 2009, for example, a major pharmaceutical company was forced to recall multiple products after consumers reported a strange odor coming from the medication. The problem? Contamination caused by a chemical used to treat the wooden pallets that packaging materials had been stored and transported on.

In this case, some consumers experienced nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea from the contamination. In more severe cases, lives could be at risk.

Recalls are costly enough. But the potential lawsuits and reputational damage caused by damage and contamination can be devastating. This has a knock-on effect on insurance premiums—and that’s not the only high cost that life science shippers need to worry about.

The cost of control: Paying for necessary protections

Every aspect of life science shipping has to be vigilantly monitored and controlled. That requires special precautions to be put in place, driving costs up.

This is especially true for cold chain shipping, which the industry depends heavily on. For temperature-controlled shipments like vials of medicine, a temperature change of even a single degree could trigger a potentially lethal change in chemical composition. The cost of ensuring this doesn’t happen accounts for 17% of all biopharma logistics spending.

Temperature is not the only additional precaution life science companies need to be aware of. Visibility and security are also serious concerns, which creates more complexity and higher costs. In the case of controlled substances like opiates, for example, two drivers are often required for additional security to mitigate the risk of theft. That’s two salaries that the carrier has to pay—and they will pass the cost on to the shipper. And for shipments being transported by air or by sea, real-time monitoring from the ground can be a challenge, requiring extra measures.

Forecasting: Striking a balance between overstocked and underprepared

For the pharmaceutical industry, in particular, forecasting is critical. Since many drugs have an extremely limited shelf life, overstocking can result in a great deal of waste. The last thing any company wants is to spend a fortune on production and shipping only for half the shipment to end up in an incinerator.

At the same time, pharmaceutical companies have to be careful to prevent drug shortages. For many other industries, the worst thing that can happen if demand is higher than expected is a missed opportunity to make more money. For pharmaceutical companies, this could pose a risk to human life, as if often the case when hospitals and pharmacies run out of vaccines.

To strike the perfect balance, pharmaceutical companies must develop a fine-tuned approach to forecasting supply and demand. They also need to have confidence in their ability to rapidly ramp up production and find carrier capacity at short notice. It’s not just about profitability—it’s about protecting public health.

Complex challenges require robust solutions

In a future post, we’ll take a deep dive into strategies life science companies can deploy to brings costs down while keeping quality high. In the meantime, find out how we can help by contacting a global pharma logistics consultant today.

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