As pharmaceutical companies cope with the rising cost of operations, many are shifting to sea-freight as a main mode of transport from manufacturing centers to markets for patient consumption. “This reduces supply chain spend and removes air-side exposure risks,” said Zuellig Pharma Head of Quality Assurance Brett Marshall at the recently held Manufacturing Supply Chain Officer Summit in Singapore.

Underlining the trend further AstraZeneca, for example, has stated it is on course for a modal shift that will see more than 70% of its products transported by sea by end 2017.

Improvements in refrigerated container (reefer) technology and reliability are making this shift possible. “For example, companies are now able to use temperature tracking and monitoring capabilities for temperature sensitive pharma products in transit,” said Mr. Marshall.

However, even with these advancements, sea freight presents new challenges for the healthcare industry such as longer lead times and planning for available capacity and pharma-specific service requirements on desired sea routes.

“Quality compliance capabilities are important to manage container integrity and longevity in conjunction with manufacturing reliability. Transit lane mapping and risk assessment of routes, ports and vessels are required to ensure specific temperatures are sustained during any reefer outages and required mitigations are understood and implemented,” he added.

Mr. Marshall said this shift towards sea freight has driven the implementation of initiatives to achieve better services and stricter standards by the airfreight industry.

“Increasingly, airlines and airfreight companies are exploring new routes and focusing more on hub development, improvements in airside infrastructure and are building pharma grade cold storage capability.”

Middle East carriers were leading the way in service innovation. “Emirates SkyPharma has opened a specialist terminal for handling temperature-controlled medical products and Qatar Airways Cargo has introduced Pharma Express flights for time sensitive products.”

Even though shipping is becoming a more prominent channel for pharmaceutical transportation, Mr. Marshall said that airfreight continues to play an important role in the pharma supply chain. “Sea freight is a good option for large volume, planned and bulk deliveries. However, airfreight is still better for time sensitive, life-saving and deliveries to meet unplanned demand.

“It is important for companies to leverage both modal services to maximize their cost and operational efficiencies. And Asian airports such as Singapore will also need to continue investment in their service, compliance and temperature-controlled storage capabilities, and capacity to act as hubs supporting the rapid growth of pharma in the region.”