Ocean rises for drug transportation due to cost and cold chain concerns

By Dan Stanton

- Last updated on GMT

Pharma down on air transportation, due to cost, security and environmental concerns
Pharma down on air transportation, due to cost, security and environmental concerns

Related tags: Transport

AstraZeneca and Baxter are opting to transport pharmaceuticals by ocean and land routes as costs and cold chain security drive a drop in air freight.

“We have definitely seen a shift from air freight to ocean and land routes,”​ Julian Wann, Global Category Leader for Logistics at AstraZeneca, told this publication. “Whilst they are slower, they tend to have fewer touch points and therefore a reduced risk of temperature variations.”

Furthermore, the shift to land and ocean routes support AstraZeneca’s goal to reduce its carbon footprint, Wann said, reflecting a recent programme by fellow drugmaker Baxter to decrease the number of shipments made by air.

Baxter has shifted to intermodal services​ using truck and rail, and on top of cost savings the firm reduced US carbon dioxide emissions by 18,000 metric tons in 2013.

20% decline in air freight

These companies are not alone in this shift, as ocean volumes for pharmaceutical shipments increased 8.1% while air volumes declined 5% in 2013, compared to 2012. The trend also held for 2012 with containerized ocean imports increasing 10.8% while air volumes declined 10%.

The statistics come from the US Census Bureau and are cited in a Global Healthcare Logistics report​, published by research firm Transport Intelligence. In 2013, 85% of pharmaceuticals were transported by air, 5% by ocean and 10% by truck, but according to the report this is expected to change to 65%, 25% and 10% respectively by 2016.    

“Cost is the contributing factor but handling of goods has been cited by some shippers as another reason,”​ Cathy Roberson, a Transport Intelligence consultant, told us. “In particular, some shippers have expressed concerns of air freight such as handling, loading, the tarmac phase and customs clearance.”

Clinical vs Commercial

The reduction in air freight is further supported by logistics firms often contracted by pharma companies to manage transportation.

“With the increasingly global nature of pharma manufacturing, companies are looking at sea freight as a potential mode of transport to reduce costs for large, heavy, temperature stable shipments of API and bulk drug product,”​ Dan Bell, VP of Regulatory Compliance and Technical Affairs at Marken told us.

“Depending on the transit time, sea freight can offer significant savings over air freight for the main method to cross international borders.”

However, he told us air freight still held a number of advantages especially in maintaining temperature stability for sensitive products such as biologics, and ocean services were less common given the high value and long lead time to produce these products.

“This is especially true for clinical material and smaller quantities of finished pharmaceuticals,”​ he said.

AmeriSourceBergen subsidiary World Courier which deals primarily with the transportation of clinical trial material supported this view.

“The materials that we are normally sending for clients are very time sensitive so we don’t have the luxury of a long sea voyage,”​ spokesperson Sue Lee said. “My understanding is that sea freight is being used for commercial drug where long time scales can be factored in.”

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