Mumbai Based Taj Pharmaceuticals: More than 350,000 people have tested positive for the COVID-19 novel coronavirus around the world, with confirmed positives surging as testing becomes more widespread. More than 15,000 people have died due to complications from the virus.

If there’s one set of numbers that’s almost as closely watched as COVID’s infections and deaths, it’s the dwindling number of medical supplies available to doctors. The wave of COVID cases slamming hospitals has caused shortages in ventilators, face masks, surgical masks, surgical gowns, and surgical gloves. The ability to rapidly produce and distribute these crucial items — and the COVID-fighting medications and vaccines we’ll desperately need once they’re ready — will play a huge role in slowing the spread of infections and saving lives.

Unfortunately, global medical supply chains may be ill equipped for that task. Numerous studies and reports from organizations and experts claim that medical supply chains aren’t prepared for the onslaught of demand for devices and pharmaceuticals. Even an optimist would say that medical supply chains may not be prepared for that demand, because those supply chains lack the transparency needed to be properly evaluated.

Some of the biggest challenges facing medical companies and their supply chains include:

— Huge spikes in demand. We mentioned the screaming need for more personal protection equipment and other items related to COVID treatment. Exacerbating the problem is that people’s regular medical and pharmaceutical needs aren’t going away. Meanwhile, scared people suffering from flu-like symptoms are aggressively seeking help. The result is packed pharmacies struggling to adjust to a rush of demand for medications.

Fake news about supposed COVID miracle cures has fuelled increased demand in those medications as well, further straining supply chains.

— Pharma companies often produce medication on demand, because holding large amounts of inventory drives up overhead. That type of thinking will need to radically change at a time when worldwide demand requires massive inventories to keep up.

— Different types of products require different supply chain treatment. Biopharmaceuticals, which made up just 17% of the global pharma market back in 2009, have experienced rapid growth since then. That growth will likely continue as scientists scramble to produce the bioengineered vaccine that will inoculate people against COVID. Biopharmaceuticals are more susceptible to impurities in the production process and damage during shipping than chemical-based drugs. Supply chains must thus ensure close monitoring and condition control throughout the shipping process, so that vaccines and other meds reach their destination unspoiled.

—Though not COVID-related per se, pharmaceutical companies need to distribute their products to more locations than ever before, from hospitals to clinics to community care centres to pharmacies. That diffusion of demand makes efficient last-mile distribution networks essential for supply chains.

Pharmaceutical and medical supply chain challenges can also differ drastically from one market to the next.

Robust infrastructure and constant innovation have made Germany the world’s fourth-largest pharmaceutical market. As a result, the supply chain challenges in highly industrialized nations such as Germany differ from those in emerging-economy nations.

Some of Germany’s biggest challenges include building supply chains that can adapt to changing landscapes (be it the rise of generic drugs or the growing need for biopharmaceuticals); improving traceability to prevent counterfeit medications from slipping through the cracks; and fragmented information flows that can hinder medication quality control and hurt patient outcomes. The COVID pandemic has also underscored Germany’s heavy dependence on China for its pharma needs, which could prompt a complete rethinking of sourcing in the future.

Then there are countries such as Honduras, where widespread poverty, government corruption, and cash-strapped healthcare systems make safe and efficient supply chains and inexpensive medications and vaccines an absolute must…but also difficult to attain.

Honduras’ Social Security Institute (IHSS) is a flawed but functional government agency that provides healthcare to about 1.6 million Hondurans. In 2012 and 2013, corrupt government officials engineered the looting of $350 million (U.S.) from IHSS. As a result, IHSS hospitals suffered through dire shortages of medicines, equipment, and staff. Supply chain oversight disappeared, leading to thousands of Hondurans dying from tainted and expired drugs. Eight years after the wave of corruption began, Honduras remains saddled with a badly underfunded, ineffective healthcare system and ongoing concerns about the quality and safety of imported medications and medical devices.

Meanwhile, the Honduran government has at times stepped in to make medical decisions without IHSS approval. Last week, the government acquired 140 respirators it said would be used to treat COVID patients. The country’s health authorities then evaluated those respirators and found that they were designed to help sleep apnea patients, but were unfit to treat patients suffering from the viral pneumonia which COVID can cause.

Emerge’s Theseus platform aims to solve these challenges. Theseus is a logistics system that tracks, traces, and optimizes the global movement of all kinds of goods, including pharmaceuticals. Backed by blockchain technology, Theseus meticulously tracks shipments across entire supply chains, from producers to shippers all the way to end users, ensuring quality control throughout the process.

With a global pandemic threatening lives and adding to the stresses already placed on supply chains, the ability to safely and efficiently track and improve the movement of personal protective equipment and medications has never been more important. When a successful COVID vaccine finally arrives, the need for fast, safe, and effective distribution channels will reach an all-time high.

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