Strengthening the Cold Chain: Insights Gained from COVID-19


A breakdown of how the industry is using these lessons to move full steam ahead.

Ed Meyer. Credit: LinkedIn

Ed Meyer. Credit: LinkedIn

Though COVID-19 is far from over, countries with high vaccination rates are easing back to normal. That means varying things for businesses, with some still experiencing significant supply chain challenges. While the pharmaceutical and cold chain industries look different than before COVID, the pace is less frenetic than it was in 2020 and 2021. There’s room to stop and assess all that has happened.

COVID’s long-term impact on the pharma and cold chain industries is unknown. However, anything that significantly alters the course of business offers insights that can position an industry to better serve its customers in the future. As we look back and reflect, here are the lessons learned, along with how the cold chain industry is using them to adapt and evolve.

Lesson 1: Product innovation and development can happen quickly

The pharma and cold chain industries were pushed to innovate through vaccine development, temperature-controlled packaging that met the needs of new deep frozen vaccine storage, and increased demand for existing products. The sector also continues to navigate logistics challenges associated with shipping large volumes of temperature-controlled vaccines to remote parts of the world—areas without infrastructure to support vaccine storage.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and this was witnessed firsthand. The pace at which COVID moved from clinical trials to commercialization is unprecedented. It shows that the distance between clinical trials and commercial product launch can be suppressed, and this may become the expectation when new, life-altering vaccines and therapies reach clinical trials.

During the pandemic, cold chain manufacturers modified existing temperature-controlled packaging or created new solutions to meet the temperature requirements for deep frozen vaccine storage. Product development that can take years was accomplished in less than a year—on the same timeline as a vaccine rollout.

It was recognized that product innovation in cold chain happens at the pace it does because one has the time, not because product development is a slow process. One can move quickly without sacrificing thoroughness and can provide innovative solutions for customers on an aggressive timeline. Pharma companies will use learnings to meet new speed-to-market expectations, and those within the pharmaceutical supply chain will need to do the same.

Lesson 2: Patient-centric care is possible

It is no secret that clinical trial enrollment plagued the pharmaceutical industry. Approximately 30% of patients drop out of studies before completion, leading to data loss and potential approval delays. A driving factor: convenience.

Clinical trial protocols are increasingly complex. Studies require extensive data collection and utilize complicated drug regimes. This can deter patients from participating in a trial because it leads to frequent travel to a clinical site for routine drug administration, sample collection, and simple tests.

With travel restrictions during the pandemic, pharmaceutical companies were pressed to find new ways to continue trials. Many routine procedures were now offered in a clinic close to study participants or in their homes, and the industry saw more participants enroll and stay enrolled in trials. In fact, studies show 50% of patients are more likely to participate in a clinical trial if home healthcare is offered.

Despite their challenges, direct-to-patient (DtP) and direct-from-patient (DfP) care models are possible. They require new procedures and agreements to ensure medication distribution is handled properly and that medication is delivered in temperature range and good quality condition. They also require portable, easy-to-use solutions for those unfamiliar with temperature-controlled packaging.

Given continued advancements and investment in mRNA technology, not to mention the optimism and growth of cell and gene cell therapy, the opportunity exists to continue making clinical trials more convenient. Currently, 24% of clinical trials offer home-based solutions that give patients the flexibility to receive medical care in their homes or ship study samples from their homes to a medical facility. It is expected that consumers and the medical community will look at other areas where home-based care can increase participation and retention. As this work happens, there is more opportunity for product and solution innovation within cold chain and the broader supply chain.

Lesson 3: Contingency planning best supports business continuity

When it comes to day-to-day business operations, the cold chain industry is not unique. Strong relationships are required internally and externally, skilled workers to serve customers, and processes that make everything run smoothly. The pandemic tested day-to-day business operations across all industries. It solidified the need for human connection and also poked holes in nearly every supply chain.

The cold chain industry is relationship-driven, and while video communications tools adequately serve their purpose, face-to-face meetings with customers are crucial to establish and maintain relationships. By the same token, leveraging online collaboration tools brought international groups closer and made it easy to work together. Using these tools will continue to benefit cross-functional product development and enable us to move forward more effectively.

While improving, labor shortages and supply shortages significantly disrupted supply chains in 2022. Given continued vaccine development and the use of home-based care noted earlier, a more robust international, national, and regional supply chain is required to meet customer demand.

Streamlining supplier qualification processes while still maintaining high quality and reliability can result in providing faster, better, and more reliable products to customers. And while labor is still constrained, automation has been developed and implemented in a variety of processes to reduce cost, improve quality, and address the labor shortage. This contingency planning is now more important than ever to ensure faster customer responses and customizable designs that adapt quickly to changing customer needs.

Looking beyond COVID

It is on us to look beyond COVID and determine how to continue evolving without losing sight of what brought us to this point. The need to collectively evolve and adapt will not lessen anytime soon. As a society, we have witnessed product innovation spurred by condensed timelines and increased consumer demands, along with new modes for clinical trials. We have also seen how adjusting the ways we do business can improve efficiency for years to come.

Now is the time to build upon the insights gained from COVID in a way that leads to continued industry growth and customer success. Given what has been learned during the past year, perhaps the new normal will be anything but. We as an industry need to be ready.

About the Author

Ed Meyer is VP of Worldwide Sales at Peli BioThermal.

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