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Every innovation has to benefit mankind at large

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As COVID-19 transforms the pharma industry, packaging, as an integral function, is also evolving to meet the new requirements and demands. Chakravarthi AVPS, Global Ambassador, World Packaging Organisation shares insights about the emerging trends in pharma packaging,  growing role and importance of this function in driving important gains and benefits such as patient-centricity, and measures to insulate the packaging industry from disruptions like the COVID-19 in future, in an interview with Usha Sharma 

Tell us about the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the pharma industry and the pharma packaging industry?

At the beginning of this year, I had mentioned in my opening address at Express Pharma’s PPL Conclave that 2020 will be a game-changer and a year of disruption. Well, we never predicted the impact of this pandemic then. Today, the industry is witnessing a wave of disruption. The world has changed forever. This pandemic can probably be called the mother of all disruptions, at least for our generation. Life will never be the same even after it settles down. And, we can say without a doubt that the industries which are surviving well under the current lockdown situation across the globe, despite a slew of hurdles and umpteen challenges, is pharma and healthcare. The packaging industry, being an integral part of the pharma industry is also doing its bit under this pandemic situation.

Given the life-saving and life-sustaining nature of pharma and medical devices, packaging plays a vital role in maintaining product quality and efficacy throughout the supply chain gamut. Today, the healthcare industry is witnessing an unparalleled demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), diagnostic kits, medical ventilators and so on. This is in addition to the spurt in demand for critical medicines and hygiene products like sanitisers and hand rubs. The research efforts to find an effective medicine or vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is picking pace all over the world. Packaging plays a vital role in ensuring the safety and security of all the above items until they reach the hands of people who need them the most.

India is the pharmacy of the world and supplies 18 per cent of global generic medicines, apart from the domestic market. Its position is unabated even under this pandemic situation. So, the packaging industry is expected to cope with these requirements too, along with a new set of challenges. We have witnessed an accelerated demand for healthcare based packaging as a result of impulse buying in hygiene, healthcare and critical medicines. In packaging, the top of the table were rigid plastics, blister foils, paper and paper board packaging that comprise the necessary labels, cartons and shippers.

Due to COVID-19, is there a surge in demand for technologically advanced packaging solutions to improve patient convenience, e.g., self-administered drug delivery devices? What will be the challenges before pharma packaging providers?

Under the current pandemic situation, consumer behaviour has completely changed in every aspect. Physical interactions between patients and doctors are declining rapidly. With advanced digital communication being easily available every corner, consultations are happening remotely.

I would like you to recall my statement, “Packaging will be your second physician”. It is really apt under today’s background. Ease of administration, dosage accuracy, dose monitoring, minimising (zeroing) medication errors will be the key factors, apart from safeguarding drug efficacy, providing product information while following regulatory framework.

Packaging comes handy in fulfilling all the above-said requirements. It is a fact that India is still a developing country and so affordable and efficacious drugs are in demand, but this does not deter the accessibility of technological advancements to the customers (ex. Revolution in mobile communication). The pharma and packaging industries always have great synergies and consociational relationship. The innovation in each industry inspires the other to excel. The demand to optimise the drug delivery for healthcare professionals and patients in today’s circumstances is much larger than ever before. And so packaging has to innovate with accelerated R&D efforts to keep up with the technological advances, remain competitive and not exceed the regulatory framework.

What could be the future trends in the pharma industry and how is packaging trying to catch up with the trends?

 The future of the pharma market will be having a targeted market approach rather than a mass-market model. In fact, we are already seeing these trends catching up in some segments. Pharma industry’s approach today is more user-centric. Every development revolves around patient needs because it is the influencing factor to shape the market. So, self-administered devices with advanced technology, especially for combination drugs which are safe and user friendly, are on the rise.

Smart inhalers and nasal sprays will gain more demand. Transdermal patches are currently used for pain relief and normal healthcare. Similarly, a lot is happening in oral dissolvable films. This format is very useful for paediatric and geriatric patients. We have heard that Gilead Sciences is developing an easier-to-administer version that can be inhaled for the sought after antiviral drug Remdesivir for COVID-19.

Thus, one cannot deny the role of packaging in the pharma industry with its rapidly changing needs and demands from the market. Hence, companies are accelerating their R&D efforts to meet critical medicare requirements too, through this concept.

Use of Artificial Intelligence in every field will be on the rise. Concepts of smart packaging with advanced NFC components may become a norm for certain products.

Evolution of ultra-thin ICs that can be embedded in any package has given scope for incorporating more features. However, disposal of such packages after use remains a challenge as they hamper the sustainability journey. Implantable medical devices gain ground as they are very appropriate for regulated drug delivery in certain cases. Wearable medical devices is another segment to watch. Many of them are already finding their applications, not just for diagnostics and monitoring purposes but also respiratory, therapeutic pain management and others. At the end of the day, I sincerely believe that every innovation has to help mankind get benefited at large.

It is assumed that the demand for pharma products will increase in many developing countries and their industry will grow significantly. One instance; there are reports that Eskayef Pharma will supply remdesivir to Maharashtra govt. Could this be a cause for alarm for the Indian pharma industry?

You have to agree, it is all changing dynamics. But think about India’s situation 15-20 years ago. I believe the Indian pharma industry can withstand such challenges as we have the technology and wherewithal to introduce products like Remdesivir and make them available to Indian customers. In this particular case, around eight Indian companies are expected to get a licence, as the process for approval is under acceleration. And on the other front, Indian pharma packaging industry is a key supplier of machinery, material and technology to many of these developing countries. So I believe the impact will not be so negative.

Do you believe that India needs a better supply chain management system? Can the COVID-19 situation be considered as a case study?

 I fully agree that the pandemic exposed some gaps in supply chain management of the Indian pharma industry. But, it is the same situation all over the world. When you have to depend on either APIs, key ingredients or any other ancillary items like packaging material or devices in either some countries or companies, we are almost left helpless in a global crisis. But, the COVID-19 situation has helped the industry to introspect and fill the gaps, work on alternatives and develop local vendors. This might help to some extent to make the supply chain stronger. 

The operation of pharma and packaging industry is interdependent. The gaps are visible under the COVID-19 situation. While many pharma companies are gearing up to meet the accelerating demands, the packaging and labelling industries are still unable to optimise to meet the demand, they have multiple challenges to address. 

The final contact between the drug and the patient is the packaging. It’s simply impossible to fill the supply chain of the pharma industry without adequate packaging and labelling. To keep the pharma supply chain afloat under current turbulent conditions, it’s important to lend a helping hand to all packaging and labelling manufacturers to run their companies smoothly.

Considering that there might be a labour shortage in the pharma industry since migrant workers are relocating to their home towns, do you see it investing in automation? How it will benefit the companies in the long run?

Well, this is certainly an issue under the current circumstances. But it won’t be a long term thing. On the flip side, continuous regulatory changes and increasing demands of inspecting authorities are leading to lesser human intervention and more automation. Sectionalised and need-based automation after a thorough process analysis will certainly help the industry in the long run. As there is renewed focus on product safety and authenticity, the adoption of technological advancements is gaining more ground.

What are the reforms/changes needed in pharma packaging to ensure the best possible safety and integrity of products?

I keep saying that unequivocal communication is a must at all levels, especially when you are working for an industry that makes products that are life-saving and life-sustaining. There is absolutely no chance for short cuts at any stage. Adhering strictly to the regulations and maintaining perfect documentation is not just a requirement but a mandatory norm. That’s on the behavioural front. In addition, pharma packaging industrialists need to embrace rapidly changing technologies into their processes and packaging innovations to meet the ever-changing demands from the industry. One has to understand that packaging safety is as important as product safety. Further, a detailed understanding of the constantly changing regulatory landscape is always needed to produce safe and efficacious packaging. The pharma packaging industry has to strictly adhere to the guidelines and standards and it has to happen flawlessly, constantly.

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