What does the pharma packaging and supply chain look like in 2021?

What does the pharma packaging and supply chain look like in 2021?

2020 was an immensely challenging year for the pharmaceutical industry. But it is also a year that will go down in history for being transformational. From smart packaging to sustainability, Rich Quelch shares his insight on what the pharma packaging and supply chain might look like in 2021. 

As activity came to a halt in many sectors around the world from early March 2020, the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry leapt into action. On the ground, medical staff were dealing with the devastating impact that coronavirus had on people’s health. In manufacturing facilities, companies pivoted to produce and ship vast quantities of treatments and personal protective equipment (PPE). In research labs, scientists raced to produce a novel vaccine and the supply chain readied itself to deliver it at speed.

Looking forward, it’s likely to be another hugely challenging year. However, going into 2021, we are in a much better position than we were, even just a few months ago. Aside from conquering the pandemic, we are also likely to see progress and exciting new developments in other areas, such as sustainability, smart packaging technologies and child-resistance.

So, let’s look forward to what we can expect from pharmaceutical packaging and the supply chain in 2021 and beyond…

A new dawn

By the end of 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) plans to deliver over 2 billion doses1 of the Covid-19 vaccine worldwide – a momentous challenge for the pharmaceutical industry and its partners.

Whilst challenging, this has the potential to revolutionise the pharma supply chain for many years to come. Despite linking the laboratory to the marketplace, the supply chain hasn’t received the same focus and investment given to the discovery, development and marketing of pharma products. And cracks are starting to show.

The benefits of a modern pharma supply chain that is fit for today’s challenges, as well as tomorrow, will long outlive the Covid-19 pandemic. It will provide cost-saving and efficiency gains for years to come, while simultaneously helping the industry to fulfil its social responsibilities. These include the need to both pioneer more sustainable manufacturing processes and produce more effective and safer medicines the entire world can afford.

Brexit will (finally) happen

It’s nearly 5 years since the UK voted to leave the European Union and 2021 will be the year it finally happens.

Whilst the conditions under which the UK leaves the EU were undecided for a long time, it has always been clear that the pharmaceutical industry was pro-deal to avoid border delays, inflated costs and opening up vulnerabilities for criminals to exploit.

If there are additional supply chain complexities and extra checks at the border, we may see some medicines disappear from the UK market if they become uneconomic to supply. This could leave some patients without their lifesaving or life-changing medicines.

There’s also the real danger of disruption with a complicated Brexit deal, creating vulnerabilities in the supply of medicines to the UK, which could be exploited by sophisticated criminal groups.

Without a Brexit deal, the UK would no longer have fallen under the protection of the Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD) which requires pharma products to comply with anti-counterfeiting regulations such as incorporating visible tamper-proof packaging and a 2D barcode. This would also mean UK organisations would have lost access to the EU central database and been unable to upload and store product data.

Let’s be realistic though. No matter what happens, the UK is likely to enforce a similar set of laws around anti-counterfeiting to protect citizens from the dangers of falsified medicine. It could even have the opportunity to take current regulations a step further and blaze the trail for other nations to follow.

Smarter and safer

In 2021 we can look forward to exciting new advancements in pharma packaging design and technologies, delivering functionality and efficiency gains while protecting patients and minors from harm.

We can expect to see user experience benefit from the mass adoption of QR-enabled packaging, helping to increase health literacy and patient compliance. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, using electromagnetic fields, will continue to support anti-counterfeiting efforts by identifying tampering. Another key development is the application of thermochromic inks, used to print reactive temperature indicators on packaging, as will smart sensors that can detect changes in humidity, light and temperature.

“In 2021 we can expect to see more exciting innovations in packaging for biologics to meet the future efficacy requirements”

In the area of clinical trials, smart packaging (featuring RFID tags) and wearable devices are promoting greater secure interaction between patient and doctor by using real-time data to monitor compliance, identify side effects faster and improve health outcomes for both volunteers and, in the longer term, the wider community.

Advancements in child-resistant packaging (CRP) will continue in 2021, spurred on by investment and innovation in the expanding CBD market. The shift towards non-re-closable designs will become more widespread, providing a higher level of protection to the medicine, plus a longer shelf-life.

Ziplock bags are another popular advancement; a single-entry design that requires mature dexterity to slide a zipper open to access the contents. The bags can easily be opened and re-secured by adults but provide a barrier to entry for children. Many designs even include a flap that covers the zipper when the bag is closed, disguising the entry point as an added layer of security.

New medicine types

The rapid rise of small-batch biological medicines marks an exciting new era for pharma, but it also means complex clinical supply chains need to be created to deliver these therapies to patients as intended.

Biological medicines are extremely sensitive to exogenous factors like time and temperature. Therefore, there are strict conditions under which these therapies must be transported and received.

In 2021 we can expect to see more exciting innovations in packaging for biologics to meet the future efficacy requirements. Fluoropolymers – which don’t use any leachable or degradable stabilising additives – are increasingly being used to form a resistant barrier to eliminate biodegradation issues. So too are cyclic olefin plastics (very rigid thermoplastics) which are intrinsically very inert, composed of just carbon and hydrogen.

These next-generation packaging materials, amongst others, are helping to deliver the next generation of medicines.

Quality by Design

Knowledge-based design will play a key role in creating sustainable and fit-for-purpose pharma packaging in 2021 and beyond.

Quality by Design (QbD) is an approach being prioritised by many trailblazing manufacturers to address the growing problem of pharmaceutical waste, degradation, and contamination from substandard or badly designed packaging.

By designing a product’s primary and secondary packaging well from the outset (including investing ample resources into the process), manufacturers can reduce the amount of materials used and wasted, test new eco materials, ensure safety compliance and efficacy, and benefit from cheaper transportation costs. A virtuous circle, if you will.

Rich Quelch is Global Head of Marketing at Origin. Go to www.originltd.com


1 https://tinyurl.com/y5cyocb3