Cold chain in 2021: COVID-19’s continued influence

As we eagerly enter 2021 and prepare this year’s cold chain industry predictions, Dave Williams, President of Peli BioThermal, a division of Pelican Products, reflects on the events of 2020

At no point leading into last year did we predict a global pandemic. Yet, its impact crosses all facets of business, causing companies to pivot and adapt.

Some were able to harness new opportunities to serve our ever-changing way of life and others struggled to stay the course.

The pharmaceutical and cold chain industries were pushed this previous year to innovate, as a result of vaccine development, temperature-controlled packages that met the needs of new deep-frozen vaccine storage and increased demand for existing products. They rose to the challenge, working in unprecedented ways to make 2021 a brighter year.

Although there is hope for more normalcy in 2021, COVID-19 will continue to drive business operations. This is certainly true for pharmaceutical and cold chain companies. Our three predictions below all show how COVID-19’s influence persists and, in some instances, may have a long-term ripple effect.

Return to refrigerated temperatures for COVID-19 vaccines

As of 8 December, 2020, 78 different COVID-19 vaccines are in clinical trials and/or under regulatory review for approval or approved for limited use.

Whereas two vaccine candidates show strong promise, with one approved for emergency use in the United Kingdom, we expect the number of viable, approved COVID-19 vaccines will continue to grow in 2021.

All being equal, it is likely that the market will favour vaccines that require refrigerated temperatures of 2–8 °C. Existing infrastructure exists to more easily transport and store these vaccines around the world.

Additionally, refrigerated temperatures eliminate concerns about shortages of dry ice and how it reduces the amount of available cargo space on aircraft.

This preference for refrigerated vaccines could push pharmaceutical companies with deep frozen vaccines to determine how to maintain the efficacy of the vaccine at a refrigerated temperature.

If this happens, we will gain knowledge that will move current pharmaceutical storage and distribution temperatures from –80 °C to easier to distribute ranges of –50 to –20 °C or even refrigerated.

Dave Williams

Outsourcing the cold chain

Pharmaceutical supply chains continue to reach new levels of complexity that challenge even the most seasoned logistics and supply chain professionals.

Contract manufacturing organisations (CMOs) and contract development and manufacturing organisations (CDMOs) offer expertise in the production and development of therapies, allowing pharmaceutical companies to focus on their areas of expertise.

This year we expect to see even more pharmaceutical companies outsource these capabilities to CMOs and CDMOs, which will help them reduce overall costs.

We also believe CMOs and CDMOs will expand to include more services. This will include cold chain, working with partners like us. Offering end-to-end expertise will help reduce complexity by standardising as many pieces of the supply chain as possible.

Growth in direct-to-patient and direct-from-patient brings cold chain to the last mile

During the past several years, clinical trials have become increasingly complex. They require extensive data collection, utilise complicated drug regimens and enrol global patient populations.

Frequent travel to a clinical site for routine drug administration, sample collection and simple tests can deter patients from participating. This is especially true when patients do not live close to a medical facility.

Currently, 24% of clinical trials offer home-based solutions that allow patients to receive medical care in their homes or ship study samples from their homes to a medical facility. We expect to see this number increase out of necessity, but also out of a desire for continued convenience.

COVID-19 also increases the chances that home-based offerings will grow outside of clinical trials. During the past year, healthcare companies and consumers learned that it is possible to receive healthcare at home.

We expect that a subset of the population will continue to prefer home-based healthcare for its convenience, driving more companies to offer this service.

Services such as phlebotomy, drug administration and sample collection that require refrigeration will require cold chain solutions.

We anticipate a drive toward solutions that require little training and are easy for home healthcare professionals and patients to operate. We should also see more assessment and evaluation of the cold chain for home-based care in 2021.

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