Quality 3PL Systems Will Be Key to Beating COVID

Two UPS staffers check inventory in a warehouse

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically raised the stakes in healthcare logistics.

With the health of humankind the ultimate goal, speeding treatments and test samples reliably from one place to the next has always mattered in healthcare.

Now, with 100,000-plus new COVID-19 cases diagnosed each day in the United States alone... and with the flu and other seasonal illnesses a looming worry... supply chains are literally a matter of life and death. Like patients, supply chains must be kept healthy and, as with patients, complications can develop.

It is easy to think of a healthcare supply chain as a smooth process that moves medicines from manufacturer to distribution centre to clinic and patient. More accurately, though, a supply chain is a collection of moving parts, units that move products in stages.

Any event in any section that stops movement – any pinch point – can compromise healing treatments, and patient health and safety.

The pressing challenges of the 2020s require third-party logistics providers (3PLs) to organise and operate supply chains with the highest integrity. Quality systems must ensure the integrity of the storage and shipments at every point in the transportation.

The sheer complexity of some healthcare logistics challenges can be daunting. Consider, for example, what will be required to universally deliver a COVID-19 vaccine.

Creating enough immunity worldwide to get humankind safely past the pandemic will require an estimated five billion doses of vaccine... and there is a strong indication a vaccine may require a booster shot. This means 10 billion doses must be manufactured, distributed, and administered globally at speeds fast enough to keep the virus from developing resistance.

To add to the complexity, there is a strong chance that any COVID vaccine, likely a biologic, will need storage and shipment at temperatures as low as -80 degrees Celsius. Supply chains will need sophisticated cold chain capabilities without compromise at any point.

The bottom line? Storing and delivering 10 billion doses of life-saving vaccine will require a 3PL partner with a truly extraordinary blend of experience, expertise, and infrastructure.

The handful of pharmaceutical companies leading the vaccine race do not have the infrastructure themselves to get 10 billion vaccine doses everywhere in the world – to megacities and mountainside villages, islands and desert communities.

A tray of coronavirus vaccines that require ultra-cold storage

Manufacturers will need to outsource at least parts of their supply chains to achieve the necessary speed and scope. This adds complexity to the supply chain, bringing more potential for pinch points.

What company, after the tremendous achievement of developing a vaccine, wishes to risk adulteration due to supply chain inefficiency or quality management issues?

Trust is an issue too. We are seeing heightened public worry over the integrity of a potential COVID vaccine.

Questions persist about speed of development, research/regulatory oversight, long-term risks, etc. People who lack confidence in vaccine research or in its transportation may choose not to be vaccinated... thereby perpetuating the pandemic.

Quality systems for every 3PL must therefore reassure vaccine sceptics.

All elements – speed, equipment, reliability, cold chain monitoring, etc. – must operate flawlessly. Even a small failure could be amplified in the marketplace, causing deeper distrust and a lack of confidence... and delaying effective global immunity.

That term – global – raises the 3PL bar even higher. Smoothly operating a worldwide supply chain is a challenge not every partner can meet.

Among a 3PL partner's most valued assets is its global knowledge. For vaccines (and other emerging biologics), the right distribution and transportation provider will know the exacting requirements for transport and storage, country by country. Examples include: What strict rules apply in this nation? What environmental standards must be met in that one? Where is speciality labelling required? What are the storage regulations? A savvy 3PL partner knows these answers up front.

Certain countries have strict regulations on the transportation of healthcare products. Others do not. A logistics provider unaware of standards (or one that turns a blind eye to them) can damage a shipment and the efficacy of the vaccines... and the hard-won reputation of the vaccine maker and logistics partner.

A 3PL provider should be able to look you in the eye and tell you its supply chain is about patients as well, not just test kits and cold chains and vaccine integrity. That mindset is really where a quality system starts.

The best 3PLs know quality and compliance from the inside out.

Many UPS professionals, for example, have migrated into the company from healthcare fields, bringing industry-leading perspectives into decisions and processes. That foundation – the right culture and the right people – drives the right actions.

To remain the best 3PL partner in the industry, UPS Healthcare has a preferred-carrier Good Distribution Practices (GDP) certification programme that qualifies third-party providers and ensures our carrier choices meet business requirements and quality standards. We look at three areas.

  1. What is required by regulatory bodies? Knowing quality standards starts the certification process.
  2. What is expected by regulatory bodies? UPS wants to serve clients at levels beyond what is explicitly spelled out by law. This includes conforming to GDP certification standards where they apply, and offering the right guidance/interaction with regulators.
  3. What is above and beyond the regulations? We aspire to follow the industry's very best practices.

Our process makes it certain that only preferred vendors handle your products, consistently conforming to GDP standards.

The ultimate component of any quality system is its people – a seasoned team of professionals embedded in a 3PL's supply chain. There is no substitute for human care in healthcare. Our 3PL services are in the hands of healthcare professionals guided by a simple credo:
Quality First. Patient Driven.

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