Is pharma ready for the effects of the climate crisis on global health?

When we talk about the future of the planet and how the

pharmaceutical industry can respond to the climate crisis, we’re actually not talking about the future at all.

The effects of the climate crisis are already being seen and felt by everyone, in all four corners of the Earth. And there are very real health consequences happening today.

Yet, according to a Lancet report, less than 4% of current spending on climate change adaptation is being channelled into minimising the adverse effects of global warming on health, even though we’re at risk of undermining the last 50 years’ of medical advances.

As a result of low investment, the real health consequences of the climate crisis are largely unknown which makes preparing for the future difficult.

This lack of understanding is also putting many lives at risk today and is amplifying existing health inequalities in countries with weaker healthcare systems such as Africa, where more than half of nations currently fail to meet core requirements set by International Health Regulation for preparedness for a public health emergency.

However, it isn’t too late for the pharmaceutical industry to act in collaboration with other large industries and help to slow or even start to reverse climate change.

How is climate change impacting global health?

A changing climate has many health implications. While it’s true not all will be adverse – such as milder temperatures reducing winter- time deaths and warmer summers limiting disease-transmitting mosquito populations – many will put lives at risks.

Rising temperatures and increased rainfall are already increasing the transmission of vector and water-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever and cholera. Tick, fly and flea vectors are also becoming more common.

Air pollution – both indoor from mould spores and outdoor from methane, sulphate, black carbon and aero allergens such as pollen – is fuelling a silent public health emergency with many urban populations seeing jumps in recorded respiratory illnesses and early deaths already.

However, the largest risk to global health comes from extreme weather events – such as typhoons, hurricanes, forest fires, snowstorms, floods and droughts – which often strike quickly but leave long-lasting impacts on populations and place huge pressures on healthcare systems.

The effects of extreme weather events are already being felt across Asia, South America and Africa in regions which have historically suffered from low incomes, poor sanitation and food shortages.

There aren’t just physical health risks either. The term ‘eco- anxiety’ was recently coined by doctors to reflect a new type of psychological disorder, born out of severe fear and uncertainty about the future of the Earth. Even in less-affected areas, the threat of climate change is impacting people’s mental well-being.

Pharma – the problem or the solution?

The answer is both. As one of the largest global industries, the pharmaceutical industry is both an enabler of climate change and part of the key to tackling its adverse effects on people.

A recent study found pharma ranks as one of the largest global polluters, emitting 12% more carbon than the automotive industry despite being nearly 30% smaller.

It’s very difficult to understand the full story about pharma’s contribution to the climate crisis because a lack of transparency still exists in environmental reporting. Many of the largest pharma companies continue to group their environmental data across product divisions – medicines, medical equipment and agricultural.

However, the tide is turning, and we’ve seen trailblazers be open and honest about their environmental impact and the steps they are taking to create a more sustainable pharma supply chain.

These include incorporating dedicated green spaces and energy- saving technologies into new site plans, investing in cutting-edge manufacturing technologies to increase yields and accuracy while minimising waste, and carrying out R&D into new packaging technologies to help eliminate non-biodegradable and single-use plastics from the supply chain.

For example, more research is taking place around bio-based PET which is made from ethylene derived from sugar cane and has a negative carbon footprint because it releases oxygen when cultivated. Researchers are also testing pioneering technology which converts PET waste back into virgin grade material to be used again.

Environmental awareness is even starting to extend to the syringe market, perhaps the most complicated field of primary pharmaceutical packaging, specifically to eliminate the need for secondary packaging as the design forms its own outer shell.

Preparing the supply chain for a world in flux

There aren’t only environmental and social benefits of reinventing the pharma supply chain in the face of climate change, but commercial gains too.

For pharma to be ready for a world in flux, the industry must be both proactive and reactive. Investment in sites’ resilience is key to preparing for extreme weather in advance and patching vulnerabilities which could close plants, such as flood barricades, emergency power generators, and keeping critical digital infrastructure on higher floors.

Given the degree to which pharma research and manufacturing facilities have been impacted by extreme weather events already – just think of Puerto Rico in 2017 when some of the biggest manufacturers lost millions in inventory following a devastating hurricane season – it wouldn’t be surprising if new legislation is passed to force big pharma to geographically diversify its production locations. They may also be required to carry heavy inventory to protect against supply chain disruption, particularly for life-saving medicines and vaccines.

The supply chain is becoming a key battle ground where the war against climate change is being fought. The most successful pharma companies of tomorrow will be those who invest in and build agile and efficient supply chains – both virtual and physical – today.

At the heart of transforming the supply chain is the application of lean principles. This essentially means using less human effort, less space and less time to produce high-quality products. It also means working as efficiently and economically as possible while being highly responsive to demand.

Big pharma will likely lean towards an all-in-one solution for its manufacturing and supply chain operations. Teams on the ground need to be capable of creating any solution, to any problem, anytime and anywhere.

Consolidating the supply chain under one roof brings a large range of benefits including, but not limited to: reduced risks and overheads, greater innovation, assurance of supply and compliance, tighter quality control and local availability via regional distribution sites on a global scale.

The promise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the pharma supply chain of the future is already being seen. For example, programmes can now independently monitor market signals and accurately predict risks related to medicine shortages; others are using machine learning to control and reduce pharmaceutical costs, using real-time signals to direct when to buy and recommend formulary strategies.

AI can even pick up that a large number of people in a geographical location are complaining about the symptoms of a virus or disease on social media and use this analysis to predict an imminent large- scale outbreak, giving local authorities and healthcare systems more time to react.

When it comes to transportation, AI is making it possible to predict and manage transportation capacity at a highly granular level, while virtually eliminating manual work and best-guess decisions, helping to keep the supply chain running.

Rich Quelch is global head of Marketing at Origin