As the NHS battles to suppress the coronavirus, communities across Britain have been adjusting to a new reality. Meanwhile, pharma has taken on the task of managing, sustaining and boosting its international supply chains. The industry is, so far, rising to the challenge, creating a new template and a revised plan for the future
As the increasingly unpredictable COVID-19 narrative unfolds,
the pharma industry has been presented with one of its greatest supply chain challenges: providing medicines for new COVID- positive patients, while also keeping up with the ‘usual’ demand for medicines. This unique set of circumstances is exacerbated by the extra strain the coronavirus and lockdown is having on the nation’s mental health – triggering further product requests in the process.
We are now a couple of months into the crisis and the supply of medicines to assist with treating COVID-19 has been reasonably fluid, while the critical pipeline of treatment for existing non-COVID conditions remains productive. It hasn’t been wholly unproblematic but, by all accounts, supply chains haven’t been severely buckling and stocks aren’t being decimated. It’s a great testament to the fortitude of our industry, especially when you consider the recent failures in personal protection equipment supplies, which aren’t nearly as complicated to produce.
Ultimately, the surge of demand for pharmaceuticals during the pandemic has meant an all-encompassing industry-wide orchestration of complex supply chains – ensuring that products are passing through the system and available to navigate a highly- pressurised NHS labyrinth. It’s a role that pharma is systematically and calmly undertaking, providing a reassuring presence alongside the wider cast of doctors, nurses, patients and politicians.
The entire pharma ecosystem is built around regions, demand, cultural shifts and a host of different scenarios. The supply line to the NHS is, even at the best of times, an impossibly sophisticated combination of manufacturing, tracking systems, supply chains and
monitoring. The synchronicity of these elements also leans heavily on knowledge of healthcare systems, product availability, digital capability and, above all, cooperation.
A vital aspect of the pharma industry – which has evolved to the point of transformation in the last decade – is its closer inter-sector partnerships with the NHS, at both local and national level. Many UK pharma companies now work closely with the NHS, and many have even been entirely integrated into it. Whether it’s been projects to educate patients, medicine adherence initiatives or shaping clinical trials, partnerships between industry and the NHS have become the norm. This cultural shift has clearly been an advantage as the two entities combine to address the current situation.
Collaborations between different pharmaceutical companies have also been much more common, especially in the last few years, during an era of greater data transparency and joint working. All these factors have become pivotal in the fight against COVID-19 and, undoubtedly, it’s part of the reason companies have been able to manage their supply chains with the necessary skill and precision.
Leon Rudd is Commercial & Strategy Director at Torbay Pharmaceuticals, part of Torbay and Devon NHS Foundation Trust. The company is a great example of a pharma company that is part of the NHS, and epitomises the brave new world of healthcare in which collaborative working and strategising is second nature.
Leon explains how challenging the last few weeks have been for the company, but also how important planning has been: “As a manufacturing organisation, operating in the UK and across international markets, and supplying the NHS, we plan for most scenarios, but a global pandemic was difficult to foresee.
Fortunately, existing business continuity plans have enabled us to modify shift patterns, work remotely and ensure maximum safety for our employees, while also allowing increased production during the COVID crisis.”
Torbay Pharmaceuticals has employed a unified approach to the way it works with customers, colleagues and supply chain partners, enabling it to meet the increased demand for existing medicines, while also supporting other licence holders to increase their supply of medicines. It is this strategy of partnership, combined with experience of market conditions, that has enabled the company to rapidly mobilise in recent months and make the necessary adjustments to maintain supplies.
Leon explains: “Having colleagues working at home, and using digital platforms, has significantly increased our efficiency and project delivery time. Furthermore, making sure we show our appreciation across the organisation is key to engendering positivity in extremely difficult times. Recognition of every employee certainly drives motivation, brings colleagues together and creates a point of focus, which is essential when we are asking colleagues to do ever more in support of the NHS.”
Although many people were glad to see the back of the seemingly endless Brexit debate, it was, curiously, the legacy of pharma’s plans to deal with its aftermath that came in very useful during the current situation.
As it has transpired, when the UK was thrashing out its exit from Europe, pharma had the good sense to create a protective infrastructure to deal with all the eventualities that may have occurred following our exit. “We already held strategic stocks across our supply chain as part of our existing Brexit plans, and this has played an important role in supporting COVID requirements,” says Leon. “We have also invested in incremental stock to support the demand we are witnessing in today’s market, and which we anticipate could increase in the near future.”
It is this priming and foresight – albeit in connection with the cancellation of our EU membership – which may actually prove one of the most critical factors in controlling the long-term impact of COVID-19. Medical history certainly has a proud history of serendipitous events, and if pharma’s plans for Brexit end up forming the template for disease crisis-management, we’ll gladly take it – especially if lives are saved.
While preparation has undoubtedly kept supply chains from becoming destabilised, the ability of companies to build and maintain links throughout the cycle has come into sharp relief. Relatively recent modernisation has effectively propelled pharma into the digital age with manufacturing honing its collaborative inclinations, while also embracing the possibilities of technology. COVID-19 has underlined that evolution and the consequence has been supply chain flexibility, increased output and a new 21st century philosophy.
This inherent flexibility is epitomised at Torbay Pharmaceuticals. “We believe in a, ‘We can if...’ approach to the way we work with our customers, our colleagues and our supply chain partners,” says Leon.
A flexible approach will certainly be required in future months as output continues to fluctuate and companies try to predict the level of demand across the summer, incorporating the scheduling flexibility which will afford them the opportunity to support more capacity.
Meanwhile, customers have started to review their existing supply chains in terms of the finished products that have been severely disrupted by pandemic-induced turbulence.
Leon believes this could be the catalyst for some companies to look at the potential for additional UK-based manufacturing sites. Therefore, a potential trend for localised – rather than globalised – solutions could become much more common post-COVID.
It is, perhaps, the performance of pharma companies during the tumult of recent months that will be the catalyst for a much- needed change in its relationship with government, driving it to address the sole focus of price, which has led to significant levels of manufacturing within low cost economies.
Leon observes: “The lack of manufacturing for certain types of medicines in the UK may have developed into a serious problem. Clearly we need to take a long look at how the volume products within the secondary care market are procured today and in the future.”
In spite of the COVID hurdles and new terrain which keeps appearing around every corner, the will to keep going has been part of the pharma mantra, and Leon has observed a very real phenomenon at his own company.
“The power created by a collective purpose, linked to a bigger nationwide and global priority, is an extremely powerful thing,” he reflects. “It has supported and driven a huge amount of goodwill within the organisation. When we add this to the fact that our colleagues really care and that Torbay Pharmaceuticals is part of the NHS, suddenly the most intimidating challenges become possible to overcome.”
With this in mind, when a vaccine does emerge, it will be down to the ability of pharma to distil the work of two decades into a matter of months – it will be the ability to transcend a situation and deliver under unprecedented pressure.
Indeed, when history recalls pharma’s wider role in the coronavirus crisis, it may be a simple case of keeping the show on the road.