Janssen's experience illustrates the COVID-19 logistics maze drugmakers must solve: report

For drugmakers with production in China, the manufacturing problems created by the COVID-19 outbreak are only part of the difficulty. As flights from China contract and prices double, the logistics of getting products out of China is a major challenge. 

Johnson & Johnson, which in June opened a plant near WuHan, the epicenter of the outbreak in China, found that just getting product out of the region posed special difficulties, Chris Ewer, head of supply chain for Janssen Pharmaceuticals in the Asia-Pacific region, told the South China Morning Post.

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“As the truck got to the border, we had to unload it and load the goods onto a new one across the border, change driver, and provide them with a lot of documents explaining what the loads were and why it was essential to allow these goods through,” Ewer said.

While the COVID-19 situation in China is improving, Ewer said the logistics obstacles may still get worse. Drugmakers are able to ship products on passenger planes, but flights in and out of China are slated to be cut further as more countries impose restrictions to try to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Shipper DHL Express in Hong Kong told the newspaper that daily passenger flights in and out of Hong Kong are being reduced to fewer than 20 a day in April. That is down from about 100 a day in March and as many as 600 a day before the outbreak.  

That means Janssen is having to book space on flights a month or two ahead. 

“We had to buy up and secure [freight] routes, especially for cold-chain products such as some for immunology and oncology patients that have to go via aircraft,” said Ewer, who is based in Singapore. 

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The key lessons from the experience, Ewer told the newspaper, are to have more than one supply source for essential pharmaceutical products and their active ingredients and to do more crisis simulation exercises.

These logistics lessons have unfolded even as J&J is scaling up manufacturing capacity to meet the supply goal of more than 1 billion doses for its lead COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Working with the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, it says it intends to start human clinical studies by September 2020 and anticipates the first batches for emergency use authorization in early 2021.