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03 Jun 2021

Pharmaceutical Products’ Deliveries in the GCC

Pharmaceutical products’ deliveries are risky anywhere in the world, but even more so in the GCC where temperatures can soar to a blistering 50 degrees Centigrade—and beyond.

The Coronavirus pandemic is driving an increased demand for B2C last-mile deliveries in the Gulf states. However, this type of carriage is more challenging than any other form of distribution and involves extensive planning.

The stakes are very high. The global biopharmaceutical industry is projected to reach a staggering USD 1.173 trillion by 2030.

Shipping companies that get it right have much to gain but those that get it wrong may face financial issues and possible lawsuits. It is therefore imperative that would-be shippers become intimately acquainted with the rules and challenges associated with transporting pharmaceutical products before launching their operations.

Last-mile delivery faces very specific obstacles.

The Challenges of Pharma Products’ Deliveries in the GCC

The current GCC pharmaceutical market opportunity is estimated at USD 20 billion, with Saudi Arabia accounting for about half the market share.

Shipping and delivery of pharmaceuticals require specialized knowledge as the products are sensitive and often expensive.

These are some of the hurdles shippers have to face in designing their operations:

1. Temperature Control

Heat is the avowed enemy of pharmaceutical products, the majority of which need to be transported at Controlled Room Temperature (CRT)—15-25 degrees Centigrade. In most parts of the world, the bulk of CRT products can be transported via standard trucking.

In the Gulf States, however, some form of cooling is essential, be it temperature-controlled trailers, thermal blankets, ice packs, or phase-change material (PCM).

Relatively few items require refrigerated medical transport (2-8 degrees Centigrade) and even fewer require cold chain packing (-20C). Products that do fall into these categories are typically handled by cold-chain experts (see the section ‘The Essentials of the Pharma Cold Chain’ below).

2. Packaging

If temperature control is the number one headache for shippers, packaging comes a close second.

Many products are damaged within hours of shipping due to poor packaging designs and wrong packaging selections.

The increasing demand for pharmaceutical products’ deliveries has seen an explosion of specialized packaging businesses, especially in Saudi Arabia, where the market is valued now at around $3.704 billion (USD) and is forecast to rise $4.84 billion (USD) by 2026.

The primary materials used in pharma packaging solutions include the following:

  • Plastic
  • Glass
  • Cardboard
  • Aluminum foil

And the main packaging used in the industry comprises bottles; tubes; vials; ampoules; syringes; pouches, and sachets.

3. Speed of Delivery

Some pharmaceutical products have very generous shelf lives but others, such as plasma and most Covid-19 vaccines, need to be used in a matter of hours once removed from the fridge or freezer.

Traffic bottlenecks, breakdowns, and other delays may render the product useless on arrival.

With the drive towards patient-centric pharmaceuticals, same-day or next-day delivery of prescriptions and life-saving medicines is assuming increasing importance.

4. Online Live Tracking

Online tracking of the package from the moment it leaves the pharmacy until it reaches the customer’s door is a key part of last-mile pharmaceutical delivery. The driver’s movements are tracked live while the temperature of the medication is also traced throughout the delivery. Alarms are triggered if temperatures fluctuate out of the defined parameters.

5. Theft Prevention

Prescription drugs, especially opioids, stimulants, and benzodiazepines, are highly sought after by criminals and drug users and carry a hefty theft risk factor. While warehouses are likely to have tight security measures in place, most theft occurs when the product is in transit—making delivery even more challenging and the need to keep accurate records essential.

Because pharma shipping is so precarious, the industry is heavily regulated around the world. The Central Gulf Committee for Drug Registration (CGC-DR) plays an overseeing role in the Gulf states and has strict regulations for shipping pharmaceuticals into the region.

This is especially relevant because the Gulf states import 80% of their pharmaceutical products, mostly from the US and Europe, and increasingly from India, which has become a major global manufacturer of generic drugs.

Ignorance of the CGC-DR’s complex legal requirements could delay time-sensitive products at customs and even lead to them being rejected.

These are some of the main requirements:

  • Country of Origin (COO) documentation: For imports from the USA, this is relatively simple, since it is one country, but for European Union imports, this can be far more complex because more than one country within the EU bloc could be involved in the manufacturing process.
  • Good Distribution Practice (GDP) certification: All EU pharma companies sending their products to the GCC require this certification, which guarantees adherence to the safety and security standards set by the World Health Organization.
  • Registration with the authorities: All pharmaceutical products have to be registered with the relevant health ministries or drug regulating authorities of the various GCC countries.

Foreign manufacturers have two options to trade and distribute pharmaceutical products in the GCC:

  1. Establish a local company.
  1. Appoint a domestic partner or local agent to obtain the necessary approvals for trade, distribution, and advertisement of the product.

The Essentials of the Pharma Cold Chain

The size of the global cold chain market is estimated to reach $340.3 billion (USD) by 2025, showing its growing importance and highlighting the need for shipping companies to maintain extreme vigilance throughout the supply chain. Even small fluctuations in temperature could affect a pharmaceutical product, or destroy it completely.

This is why cold chain packing is crucial at every step, from manufacture to transportation, to storage, and finally, to client delivery.

Refrigerated or insulated trucks must regularly be cleaned and serviced—a cooling system failure could destroy cargo worth thousands of dollars. Cold storage facilities in warehouses and other distribution centers must similarly be well maintained, with a backup electricity supply ready to kick in should there be a power outage.

Throughout the logistics process, all cooling units should be equipped with alarms that activate when temperatures fluctuate too wildly. This is particularly crucial during the last-mile delivery of the product.

Prohibited Items

GCC countries are signatories to several global conventions on psychotropic and narcotic substances, which aim to eliminate drug trafficking and ensure these harmful drugs are used only for medical and scientific purposes.

In addition, each country has listed other drugs and medicines which may not be imported, manufactured, or transported within the region.

The United Arab Emirates, for example, has a list of 70 unauthorized medicines, while Saudi Arabia’s list runs into the hundreds.

Last-mile Pharmaceutical Delivery

Demand for faster and more efficient pharma deliveries is increasing around the world, driven by the Covid-19 pandemic, the increase of online 24/7 pharmacies, and expectations of same-day delivery.

This evolution of the health care market is having a direct impact on last-mile pharmaceutical delivery, which is estimated to account for around 40 percent of logistics costs for pharmaceutical wholesalers.

Along came Amazon...

Amazon raised the benchmark when in November 2020 it established Amazon Pharmacy, which distributes medicines directly to patients. Under its “Amazon key in-fridge” initiative, temperature-critical medicines are delivered directly to the patient’s refrigerator.

In some countries, Switzerland for example, aerial drones are being used to deliver plasma, medicines, and biopharmaceutical products to hospitals and laboratories.

In the UAE, more and more pharmacies are offering doorstep deliveries of medicines, medical equipment, and fulfilled prescriptions.

It’s a trend that some forward-thinking delivery providers are capitalizing on. For example, Shipa Delivery specializes in on-demand logistics for pharmaceutical products and offers delivery within the hour. The drivers transport the goods in cooling bags with ice packs, frequently monitoring the contents’ temperature using thermometers placed in the bags.

To stay in the game, traditional pharmaceutical companies need to adapt in the following ways:

  • Invest significantly in technology upgrades, such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and automation.
  • Choose last-mile delivery partners with advanced systems that include the ability to track the driver and the product during the entire delivery process.

Look Before you Take the Pharma Leap

If you are planning to enter the business of delivering pharmaceutical products, especially last-mile drop-offs, make sure you carry out detailed research into the ever-evolving industry. The future is bright for pharma deliveries—but the pitfalls are many, varied, and unpredictable. Mistakes could prove very costly indeed.