Good Karma From Big Pharma

July 1, 2002
Pharmaceuticals create special challenges and opportunities for material handling.
Good Karma from Big Pharma

The pharmaceutical industry probably thinks Peter Jennings is a pill. ABC’s star anchorman recently presented a news special called Bitter Medicine: Pills, Profit and the Public Health. That title alone should tell you how the industry was presented.

A key message of this special was that pharmaceutical companies spend more money putting out new versions of old drugs than on developing new wonder drugs. The implication is that drug companies focus on maximizing profit to shareholders.

Nowhere in the special was there any mention of the real profit opportunities in store for pharmaceutical companies. Hey, Jennings, listen up: They’re going to come from excellent supply chain management.

The ABC special was right in reporting that the flow of new pharmaceutical products has slowed dramatically. What it missed is the new flood of biotech research that’s going to bring new cures and new profits — if the logistics are handled properly.

Todd Applebaum, a researcher and consultant to the biotech industry, told me that the nature of the large molecules that make up biotech drugs is different from the small-molecule, traditional pharmaceuticals.

“These large-molecule proteins behave almost like living organisms and they’re very sensitive to changes in environmental conditions and to changes in the ingredients that go into producing them. Supply and distribution need to be much more rigorously controlled.”

Take Enbrel, for example — especially if you have rheumatoid arthritis. This new blockbuster drug is made up of a large-molecule protein that is very difficult to transport and distribute. The packaging and handling must be tightly controlled. That presents challenges not only to the manufacturers, but also to all the shippers and carriers throughout its supply chain worldwide.

The industry, in commercializing these drugs, is capacity constrained, Applebaum told me. There’s not enough production capacity in the world and the demand outstrips the capacity. Some companies are looking to leverage an extensive network of trading partners to meet the demand. Those partners include third-party logistics providers. These logistics professionals will set the new standard for the art of material handling in the pharmaceutical industry.

The challenges are stiff. Pharmaceutical companies will be faced with finding new logistics economies while maintaining and commercializing a pipeline of new products. Meanwhile, there will be new and more stringent FDA mandates. Existing facilities will need to be continually upgraded to stay in compliance. Processes will have to be changed and re-validated. Material handling methods, practices and standards will have to be consistent across global supply chains.

Product tracking will be overshadowed by event and condition tracking. When did a shipment leave, when did it enter customs and when did it arrive at the customer site? All these conditions will be audited.

These are expensive propositions, but necessary. On the plus side, as more pharmaceutical and biotech companies invest in the enabling technologies, the price of these technologies should come down, making it easier for other industries — or even your company — to adopt them.

Of course, if the cost of those technologies doesn’t come down, MHM will want to know why; followed by Jennings, Rather and Brokaw.

Tom Andel, chief editor, [email protected]