In an interview with AJOT, Pharma.Aero’s Secretary General, Frank Van Gelder, highlighted the work of the platform and provided an insight into pharma logistics and the challenges it faces.

Pharma.Aero is an international collaboration platform, headquartered in Belgium, dedicated to advancing logistics in the Life Science and MedTech industries.

Founded in 2016, it fosters co-operation across the supply chain to address transportation challenges through multimodal solutions encompassing air, sea, and land logistics with the aim of “achieving excellence and driving positive change for better access to healthcare worldwide.”

Pharma.Aero’s ‘global community’ includes some 20 pharma/life science manufacturers, among them giants such as Pfizer, Novartis, MSD, GSK, Bayer and Johnson & Johnson but also much smaller enterprises and start-ups specializing in very specific cell and gene therapy.

The membership also extends to major forwarders and cargo-carrying airlines, airports, cargo ground handlers, cold chain specialists and professional bodies such as the Cool Chain Association, the Humanitarian Logistics Association, IATA and TIACA.

Dallas-Fort Worth Airport will be hosting a Pharma.Aero Pharma Logistics Masterclass (PLMCTM) later this year, a four-day event where ‘business meets academics’ for deep-dive discussions into how pharmaceutical supply chains are organized and what scientific methods can be applied to optimize logistics processes.

Appointed in January 2018 with a remit to scale-up the organization, one of his first moves was to push for the platform’s transformation into a non-profit organization and establish its role as a neutral partner in pharma logistics.

Frank Van Gelder’s career background is rooted in critical patient care spanning almost 20 years, notably in organ transplantation “where logistics is a minute by minute undertaking.”

Frank Van Gelder

Today, his passion is to pursue projects and programs centered on end-to-end critical life science supply chains and innovative healthcare solutions.

He also wears an academic hat, lecturing in healthcare supply chain and logistics, has written extensively in this field and is a regular conference speaker around the world.

AJOT: First of all, could you give an overview of the pharma/life sciences ‘ecosystem’?

VAN GELDER: The market value of produced drugs, at the end of 2023, totaled US$ 1.5 trillion. The industry has posted a CAGR of more than 6% over the past 20 years and the forecast is for this to continue until 2035. And there is a simple explanation – the world’s population keeps on growing and with it the need for more drugs. Secondly, the population is living longer, and chronic care provision is increasing, fueling the consumption of pharma products.

The United States, China, India, Japan, and Germany contribute to half of global pharmaceutical expenditure, with the US alone accounting for 27%. In the US, within the intricate web of pharmaceutical costs, logistics expenses, encompassing last-mile delivery, picking, and storage, constitute a significant 7% of global expenditure.

Data also shows that pharmaceuticals command a non-negligible 3.6% share of air cargo, contributing 5.6% to airline revenue.

So, pharma logistics is a key service provider to a global industry which has enjoyed and will continue to enjoy strong growth. Moreover, the range and complexity of drugs has never been greater, raising the bar of handling expertise throughout the supply chain.

AJOT: During your term of office, Pharma.Aero’s membership has grown from only 14 to almost 90 today. Two big names to join in recent months are Emirates SkyCargo and Kuehne + Nagel. How do you explain the exponential growth in the membership?

VAN GELDER: The simple answer is that we are responding to a need. I think there’s an openness on the part of all the different players in the pharma supply chain to leverage their collective strengths to ensure the safe, secure and efficient transportation of vital medical supplies and they see a collaborative platform such as Pharma.Aero as the best way forward rather than working in isolation. The success of our Pharma Logistics Masterclass events clearly bears this out.

There’s also recognition within the pharma supply chain that a platform like Pharma.Aero opens doors when it comes to establishing dialogue with regulatory bodies, such as IATA, the FDA and the European Medicines Agency.

AJOT: What are your reflections on Pharma.Aero’s collaborative project with IATA to strengthen the latter’s CEIV Pharma program and whose findings were published earlier this year?

VAN GELDER: CEIV Pharma is basically a certificate of pharmaceutical handling excellence. It has been around for almost a decade and many pharma logistics players have accreditation. We proposed to IATA that we sound out our membership on how they perceived the program and whether they had suggestions to make as to its future development.

The conclusion we came to was that while CEIV Pharma was a very good assessment tool, there were elements to it that needed to be done differently.

The project led to recommendations that CEIV Pharma focus on six key directions. They include building awareness through increasing engagement with the regulatory authorities to ensure ongoing integration of global best practices into the program and continuous improvements of the certification process.

Enhancing the program’s visibility within the life science manufacturing sector and making it more accessible to smaller enterprises and underserved markets were also identified as priorities.

AJOT: What were the main lessons learned by pharma logistics players during the COVID pandemic?

VAN GELDER: What we should have learned from COVID is the value of true cross-industry, cross-discipline collaboration and that you can never solve a problem alone.

We had a situation in March 2020 where airlines had stopped flying because of the pandemic and there was a severe shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment). Healthcare professionals in ICUs were risking their lives in treating COVID patients.

The task was to fly such material, sourced mainly from China, to the rest of the world. Apart from organizing charter flights, the big issue was the certification of Chinese-produced PPE under European law. So, we needed to act fast and bring the regulators to the table and agree on common standards to allow this material to be flown in.

Collaboration was also at the heart of the logistics effort to distribute COVID vaccines across the globe.

AJOT: What do you consider to be the main challenge facing pharma logistics today?

VAN GELDER: I think it’s all about having the right mindset – being resilient and robust in what we do, super-flexible and acutely adaptable to new situations. And I’m not only alluding to geopolitical crises but also to the pace of innovation in pharma/life sciences which is turning out products that we’ve never seen before nor that have been managed on a large scale by a linearly-organized, traditional supply chain/logistics system.

AJOT: While Pharma.Aero has focused mainly on pharma transported by air, you recently announced a strategic move towards a multimodal approach. What factors led you to this decision?

VAN GELDER: By broadening its scope to include various modes of transportation, Pharma.Aero aims to address a wider array of challenges while catering to the evolving needs of healthcare transportation.

This strategic shift paves the way for enhanced projects and membership opportunities, positioning the organization at the forefront of innovation in supply chain logistics for the Life Sciences and MedTech industries. The goal is to improve patient outcomes by ensuring timely and secure delivery of critical pharmaceutical products