The air cargo industry is bracing itself for the tightening of regulations governing the transportation of temperature-controlled goods. With most pharmaceutical products being vulnerable to temperature variations, the healthcare industry is sitting up and taking notice.
The key to avoiding potential losses during transportation is ensuring an efficient and unbroken process along the entire cold chain. A single loose link could mean that costly and essential pharmaceuticals are left in an unusable or even potentially dangerous state, with the spin off problems associated with lack of adequate vital medicinal stocks or even legal procedures.
To prevent this from occurring, industry quality standards have been developed, covering all aspects of the logistical management of transporting of perishable and temperature sensitive products (PTSP) goods.
Amongst these are the cool chain quality indicators (CCQI), developed by the UK-based Cool Chain Association and Germanischer Lloyd Certification (GLC). The aim of the CCQI is to improve the consistency of cool chains across the globe, but many companies involved in the airfreight industry in the Middle East and subcontinent region seem unaware of the new standards.
It is not all doom and gloom, however. Good business dictates that the outcome for companies fighting to capitalise on a growing market is that they will be forced to improve their facilities and services in order to meet the demands of their customers. As their demanding customers are now insisting on an effective cool chain to guarantee the safe arrival of pharmaceutical consignments, the airfreight industry in the Middle East and subcontinent region is having to respond appropriately.
One of the major cargo suppliers in the Middle East, Emirates SkyCargo, is on top of the game. Already a member of the Cool Chain Association, the carrier understands the particular challenges in transporting pharmaceutical and perishable goods throughout the region. “We do have to constantly guard against the hostile temperatures and associated humidity that is prevalent in this region,” explains Dave Gould, Emirates’ vice president, cargo, global operations. “Even a relatively short exposure to the excessive temperature that we sometimes experience could seriously compromise the quality of the product.”
Emirates SkyCargo’s facilities are in place to help prevent that scenario from occurring, with its extensive storage area for perishables and independently-controlled temperature zones in each of its fleet of five Boeing 747-400F aircraft.
“In addition to our facilities, which include all the temperature controlled storage environments associated with airfreight warehouses, we have also invested in mobile cool dollys and thermal blankets, which we use to ensure the integrity of the cool chain between aircraft and our facilities and vice versa,” elaborates Gould.
In fact, a fleet of six purpose-built cool dollys were introduced by the carrier in November 2005, to manage its high volumes of perishable cargo. After landing, unit load devices (ULDs) with the cargo are directly transferred from the aircraft’s holds into the cool dolly, which is then housed in the Emirates SkyCargo Centre either for local collection and delivery or sent onwards to its final destination.
The carrier also has a global partnership with Envirotainer to provide temperature-controlled cool-tainers, which it maintains are an excellent solution for door to door temperature sensitive products.
Gould believes that the region has seen significant improvement in terms of the quality of the logistics in transporting pharmaceuticals over the years. “In general, there are more temperature controlled vehicles and storage facilities in our business today in the region as compared to say, five years ago,” he acknowledges. “Additionally, there is a greater awareness in general, with far more expertise locally, which results in strengthening the capability to handle such sensitive goods as they should be handled.”
B.V. Srinivas, marketing manager for Gulf States at pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca’s regional Dubai office, is also satisfied with the progress experienced in the region. His personal experience has demonstrated that it is very rare to have a damaged pharmaceutical consignment arrive in the region, compared to the situation of perhaps five to ten years ago. He puts his positive outlook down to the improvements in the logistical management of transporting pharmaceuticals by air in the region.
“In the past, people at the customs would not understand what storage conditions were required, and they would store it anywhere where it could be exposed to temperatures beyond a certain range, and the product had to be discarded,” expresses Srinivas. “But now, storage conditions have improved, delays with local agents collecting the consignments have been considerably reduced, there is better packaging, technology and so on. So in all spheres of activity, there has been a considerable improvement,” he adds.
Indeed, it does appear that a desire to succeed in the healthcare market, together with access to new cool chain management technology, have been the key drivers in the significant improvement experienced in the Middle East.
Samar Alwash, regional sales manager EMEA of Sensitech, a leading provider of cold chain visibility solutions, clarifies how temperature control technology works. “Depending on the size and type of product transported, we typically recommend using at least two temperature control monitors for 20ft containers, and at least three for a 40ft container. If it is a high-value commodity, you may see a monitor in every box.” Each monitor provides the customer with information on temperature levels at pre-agreed time intervals programmed into the device. Upon arrival, the monitors can be downloaded into the computer and thus provide an accurate insight into the quality of the product.
Through receiving critical information on the temperature levels experienced by their products along the supply chain, Alwash believes that consignees can have greater confidence in the quality of their products.
“There are some products where it becomes visible if they are not in good order, but what about a vial with a certain vaccine? If you are selling a product that is sensitive to temperature and humidity, ultimately you wouldn’t want it to harm your customer,” he highlights. “If you are dealing with complex supply chains and you don’t know what happened along the way, how can you vouch for product integrity?”
With some of the largest pharmaceutical companies as its clients, Sensitech has a strategic alliance with Envirotainer to deliver further advanced cold chain management solutions for air transport of pharmaceuticals and other perishable goods.
Envirotainer has also been increasing its presence within India’s burgeoning healthcare industry, transporting pharmaceutical goods to and from the region using Indian-based air logistics company Interavion as its local agent. With forecasts for the region’s pharmaceutical industry promising a 20% annual growth, the need for efficient cold chain management in airfreight has never been greater in India.
“The Indian pharma industry has seen significant growth over the years, with recent regulatory changes is poised to make India an even more significant player in areas such as contract manufacturing, generic drugs, clinical research for new drugs and basic drug research,” explains Priti Bali, marketing manager at Interavion.
According to Bali, stringent GMP (Good Manufacturing Processes) for the manufacture of pharmaceuticals have been in place for many years in India, but the country has lacked any real specific guidance on its transportation and the distribution. Due to the weaknesses identified in this process, various regulators are now putting in place shipping practices that provide guidance on the storing, distribution, and shipping of pharmaceuticals.
She believes that much of the pressure to change has come not only from the government, but more so from customer expectations and international competition contributing to pressures for a better performance from the supply chain. “For many years, the pharmaceutical industry has been a significant user of air cargo services in India,” Bali admits. “The main concern here can be the lack of proper infrastructure that can provide support for pharmaceutical products, specifically, in areas where temperatures are constantly at 30 0 Celsius or higher. The existing infrastructure has been put in place for perishables, which don’t require as strict maintenance of temperature.”
There is little doubt that the region has improved significantly in terms of the quality of transporting pharmaceuticals by air. Bali credits the shippers and customers as being instrumental in the successful implementation of various cold chain systems in India, with a major study on the Indian cold chain process in the pipeline set to ‘revolutionise’ the industry. However, the increasing privatisation of India’s major airport hubs, including Mumbai and New Delhi, promises to deliver even better facilities for pharmaceutical cargo in the region, judging by their massive modernisation plans and recognition of the money making potential of the business.
The Middle East’s airports are also falling over each other to develop the best possible storage and handling facilities in terms of their perishable air cargo operations, with this potentially lucrative pharmaceutical market in mind. Despite airfreight being the preferred method of transport of many of the leading pharmaceuticals companies, improvements in cool chain management in sea freight in the region also mean there is another serious and lower-cost contender on the horizon.
In light of all this competition, certainly pharmaceutical companies can begin to rest assured that their high value pharmaceutical products are being placed into increasingly competent and reliable hands. However, the region still has some improvements before the consistency of quality across the cold chain can be deemed foolproof. “It is already a challenge when the product is moving from point to point but the challenge is increased many fold when there are transit points within the movement of the product,” emphasises Michael Proffit, chief executive officer of Dubai Logistics City (DLC).
He believes that in order to ensure clear processes and systems to track the temperature of a pharmaceutical product through the supply chain, there is a need for better investment in equipment and facilities. To be based at what is expected to be the worlds’ largest airport, Dubai World Central International Airport, DLC’s cargo facilities will include up-to-date temperature controlled facilities. However, as Profitt points out, it is not enough for the big players in the field to take action. “The leading companies have already recognised that they need their partners in the supply chain to invest in the systems, equipment and facilities that are required to ensure that the temperature controlled products can move through the supply chain with a minimal risk of failure.”
The need to work in partnership, sharing technology, standards and commitment to the cool chain is the key to success in transporting vulnerable goods such as pharmaceuticals. As Interavion’s Bali concludes, “This is the most important way the cold chain can be improved. The supply chain has always had multiple players and all of them working together in sync is the only way to improve this process.”