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How supply chain digitisation is paving the way to gene therapy

Big pharma has been on the frontline to vaccinate the world against Covid-19. Digitising supply chains sets them up to personalise patient care

Like many businesses, the major pharmaceutical firms needed to manage their facilities, keep staff safe and maintain resilient supply chains during the pandemic.

The changes they needed to make involved a deep understanding of supply chains using artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics for end-to-end visibility to ensure vaccines and other medicines are delivered to where they are most needed.

During the recent Reuters Supply Chain conference, Linzell Harris, senior vice-president of global supply chain and strategy at AstraZeneca, discussed the role of digitisation in the supply chain and how this has supported the pharmaceutical company’s operations.

Prior to the pandemic, AstraZeneca had set out a strategic path to manage growth. Harris said the company was looking at its past product portfolio to understand how digital capabilities would help it be efficient as operational models shifted.

He added that AstraZeneca looked at blockchain for visibility and tracking, AI to see how fast it could pick up signals of demand changes in markets, and digital twins for scenario and dynamic planning.

With the pandemic, he said the company needed visibility from the raw material supplier’s stage of production all the way to delivery of the finished product to its final destination.

“How fast can you understand risk and see it is increasing and then respond fast enough? You cannot respond after the facts. It needs to be proactive,” he said. “In a pandemic, we truly need to reprioritise production, move inventory levels and change key parameters depending on demand.” 

The company also had to move from monthly cycles of planning to daily changes to the network. From a supply chain perspective, Harris said: “We needed to really focus on synchronisation and on speed and transparency of the total network.”

Discussing the challenges of the lockdown, Steffen Lang, global head of Novartis’ technical operations, said: “We produce more than 70 billion units of medicine and have sites across many countries to supply all markets.” The two key priorities during lockdown were ensuring staff remained safe and the supply of medicines to patients.

Lang said the team swiftly adapted, with some sites delivering increasing demand, and achieved record levels of output: “We continued to receive approval for new products. Launches executed successfully. It was much smoother than we expected.”

Lang believes that a robust supply chain was key to the company’s ability to remain operational and provide medicines during the pandemic. This enabled Novartis to ensure it had adequate stock levels at various stages of manufacturing and gave it the ability to quickly replenish what was being used.

He said that digitisation enabled almost real-time visibility of supply, which was important when borders were locked down. The automation enabled the company to make its end-to-end supply chain less dependent on physical intervention by people.

Real time, accurate data

In both fireside chat discussions, Harris and Lang spoke about the need for timely and accurate data. This data was crucial in helping the two organisations during the pandemic make fast and accurate decisions.

Lang spoke about the company’s work to digitise its supply chain across forecasting, demand planning, supply planning and execution, using data workflows and AI to support decision-making.

“We are moving more and more to generate the data as we produce, which is available during manufacture,” he said.

Real-time visibility could enable the company to understand consumption of its products and enable it to adjust production accordingly. Lang believes this will evolve as new treatments are introduced such as gene therapy that offer personalised medicines and point-to-point treatment, where patients receive the medicines they need directly.

Similarly, Harris spoke about a “blurring of the final mile” where the company takes a wholesaler and distributor view of the products it produces to deliver directly to patients’ homes. “It’s not sitting in a warehouse,” he added. “We’ll have a name with a patient. How do you deliver to the patient? This is clearly what we need to do in the future.”

A report from Grand View Research recently estimated that the value of the personalised medicines market at $493bn, and forecast that it would grow annually by over 6% between 2021 and 2028.

The report also notes that the pandemic has propelled the demand for personalised medicines. For instance, the report’s authors reference a study conducted in 2020, which indicated that Covid-19 infections are linked with certain gene variants.

Such research is an indicator of where big pharma is heading. What AstraZeneca and Novartis have shown is that a joined-up supply chain has been key to delivering medicines during the pandemic. The next phase will be pharmaceutical supply chains with a digital backbone from manufacture all the way through to delivering personalised medicine directly to a patient. 

Read more about technology in the pharmaceutical industry

  • The Asia-Pacific pharmaceutical company, Zuellig Pharma, is using a blockchain platform from SAP to help consumers identify the provenance of medicine.
  • Vaccines and other medications must meet stringent temperature, light, humidity and handling requirements. CalAmp’s Paul Washicko explains what role IoT can play to ensure compliance.
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