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The COVID-19 effect on pharma packaging

Experts share insights on how COVID-19 is likely to alter trends in pharma packaging and determine its future progress

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The importance of packaging in the pharma sector to strike the right balance between cost, quality and regulatory compliance is an established fact.

Therefore, as the dynamics of the pharma sector gets transformed by COVID-19 pandemic it is obvious that pharma packaging and labelling too will undergo major shifts.

Express Pharma spoke to some pharma packaging veterans and leaders to understand the major changes that are being ushered into this sphere by COVID-19 and their impact. Let’s look at what their insights reveal.

Supply chain resilience – a priority: The pandemic exposed the gaps in supply chains across industries and pointed out how critical and vital it is to de-risk them. So, many experts highlight that as a priority, the pharma sector and its ancillary industries, including packaging, will look at ironing out the chinks in their supply chains.

Avinash Kumar Talwar, Head – MRO & Packaging Material Sourcing (Strategic & Plant), Global Supply Chain Management, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories points out, “Companies will be looking for contingency plans with short-term, mid-term and long-term plans. They will focus on understanding their own supply chains and mitigating their vulnerabilities. And, despite the inevitable increased costs, risk management across networks and supply chains will continue.”

He states that this will include measures to improve speed to market as well. And, looking at border controls by governments of different countries, many companies will opt for local packaging material suppliers, especially if there is a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

Ajay Bapat from Packaging Concepts feels the same way. He says that most countries are working on localisation from globalisation, calling attention to the fact that the Indian government has also given the call for ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’.

He explains that in order to make supply chains stronger and ensure availability of packaging materials there will be more and more focus on local suppliers.

A surge in antiviral/antimicrobial packaging: Another major trend is the growing demand for packaging with antiviral and antibacterial properties. This is also being spurred, among other reasons, by consumer sentiments and fears about the ability of viruses and microbes to stay alive on packaging surfaces.

As Soumyanath Mishra, General Manager – Packaging and Development, Mankind Research Centre, states, “Since this crisis, packaging designs and substrates that address hygiene and consumer-safety concerns—like minimising the possibility of the virus’ survival on the packaging surface, will see much demand.”

Shivaji Chakraborty, Fresenius Kabi explains, “The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in demand for sterile and antiviral packaging due to the risk of transmission through packaging surfaces.”

Talwar also agrees that there will be innovations in the form of new packaging materials, especially to give indications whether the packaging is virus-free or not. He also opines that this will be a big game-changer or a value creator.

These views are also supported by several market analysis. For instance, a report released by Future Market Insights in April 2020, informs that worldwide adoption of sterile and antiviral packaging will surge nearly 1.7X over 2020-2030. The report also reveals, “Ampoules and vials continue to attract huge investments from stakeholders in sterile and antiviral packaging market. Multi-compartment packaging products such as thermoformed trays and blister packs are reflecting potential value-creation opportunities in.”

Sustainability agendas may go on a back-burner: A recent statement released by GlobalData, a data and analytics company, accentuates “Sustainability has been a big trend in the past few years and many companies in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region have switched to more eco-friendly alternatives, such as replacing plastic materials and removing single-use packaging. However, since the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), companies may resort to plastic packaging to combat the spread of the pandemic putting the sustainability aspect in the back seat.”

In the same statement, Arvind Kaila, Practice Head of GlobalData Consumer Beverages at GlobalData, says, “Single-use packaging, which has faced lots of criticism in recent years because of environmental concerns, might be seen as a better packaging alternative from a ‘hygiene’ point of view because of limited handling/access of the inner products; which may hurt sustainability goals set forth by governing bodies and businesses alike.”

We are seeing this happen in the case of pharma packaging as well.

The earlier mentioned report by Future Market Insights illuminates, “Plastic finds a wide range of applications in sterile and antiviral packaging including, pouches, thermoformed trays, clamshell and other packaging products. The adaptability of plastic material to mould into various and high barrier properties is enabling its broader adoption in sterile and antiviral packaging.”

Moreover, it is more cost-effective than some eco-friendly packaging materials. Currently, more so because the prices of crude oil have nosedived, thereby making plastic, which is derived from petroleum-refining products, even cheaper. And, at this point in time, when industries are looking to cut costs, it seems like a more viable option.

Therefore, recycling and sustainability, a big agenda for pharma companies, over the past few years seem to have been put on the back burner for now and our veterans from the industry admit it.

Talwar states, “Sustainable options will be reconsidered by every organisation.”

Chakraborty clarifies,Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus was mainly on the environment, ocean plastics and recycling/reuse of packaging materials, i.e. sustainability. However, after the outbreak of the COVID 19 pandemic, the focus has shifted to health and safety.”

Ajay Bapat, Packaging Concepts also says, “Before this crisis, all of us were talking about sustainability and replacing plastic with some other material. But, in this new normal, most of the industry is worried about the availability of the material. Therefore sustainability may take a back seat for some time.”

However, some experts also feel that we might also see the use of novel packaging material among companies who are serious about reducing their carbon footprint.

Chakraborty details, “Innovations are forthcoming for antibacterial and antiviral polymers and biopolymers for packaging. Antiviral biopolymers, specially reinforced with active drug elements, will generate significant interest, as they are efficient, environment-friendly and exhibit low toxicity. Demand for these materials will remain strong post-COVID-19, as consumer sentiment will become more concerned for reducing contamination risks and increasing safety in handling.”

Mishra also informs that we might see increased use of bio-based materials like biopolymer polylactic acid or polylactide (PLA), a shift from PET to bio-based polyethylene furanoate (PEF) etc., which are eco-friendly in nature.

It is to be hoped that pharma companies and its packaging partners will look beyond short-term interests and continue to invest in solutions and materials which will be beneficial for the environment, and in turn, mankind.

The rise in automation and robotics: QR codes, holograms and RFID tags are already being adopted in pharma packaging. Now, experts feel that driven by safety and quality concerns, pharma packaging will see a renewed focus on product authenticity and safety. This, in turn, may lead to greater adoption of smart packaging techniques like blockchain, IoT etc., to offer consumers more information about the contents of the package, its environmental condition, efficacy etc.

Mishra states, “Internet of Things (IoT) is gradually becoming an everyday reality in pharma, with inventory and supply chain management teams as the biggest adopters. The amalgamation of IoT in drug delivery devices is also a recent trend, in relation to packaging.”

Likewise, they also think that automation and robotics will also be embraced in a big way, as far as manufacturing and operations in pharma packaging are concerned.

Bapat outlines, “Most of the industry is talking about automation and robotics, maybe to the tune of a 30 per cent surge, just to avoid over-dependency on human intervention. With increasing automation in the industry, our focus needs to be on the flexibility and adoptability of machines, accurate and stringent material quality and planning.”

Talwar predicts,Digital/analytics tools will accelerate agility and transparency going forward. As the future of work becomes more remote and distributed, demand may shift to new capabilities and talent. Therefore, companies will try to focus on these new efficiencies when work resumes. Within operations functions, new capabilities will also be needed as the workforce shifts from manual skills to more technical skills.”

Thus the COVID-19 pandemic is transforming and disrupting industries as never before. Pharma packaging too is getting re-imagined in a big way, and technology is expected to playing a starring role in this transformation.

Riding the e-commerce wave: This seems to another trend which will have a lot of impact on pharma packaging. Shopping for medicines online was still at a nascent stage in India before the outbreak of COVID-19, but given the current circumstances and the need for social distancing, there has been an exponential rise in this practice.

Pointing out that online ordering of medicines will be on a rise due to the need for social distancing while the pandemic continues to wreak havoc, Talwar emphasises that there will be a need for more robust packaging to avoid any damages.

This, in turn, has increased the need for packaging solutions which are suited for e-commerce, which will ensure more investments in packaging research, design, innovation, and practices suited to this rising trend.

More changes in store…..

Along with these five trends, our experts point out several other changes that we are likely to witness in pharma packaging such as:

Regulatory changes: Regulatory compliance will play a significant role in the rapidly shifting, risky terrain. Therefore, it is likely that new standards and regulatory requirements will be issued by the ISO as well as regulatory authorities, which will impact decision making.

Demand for products facilitating self-administration: Customers will prefer to maintain social distancing and considering that there are limited medical professionals in our country, drug delivery devices facilitating self-administration will be more in demand.

Increase in packaging costs: As lead times for parenteral packaging and a few primary packaging materials increase, it will be necessary to have excess inventory, leading to increased costs. Moreover, the costs will also increase as the industry adopts new materials, technology and formats for pharma packaging.

Opportunities and challenges galore in future 

The importance of packaging in pharma cannot be overstated. To put it in perspective, as Bapat states, “Many companies have started the development of the new products for COVID-19 and transporting them to geographical locations across the countries and globally without adequate support from the packaging industry will not be possible.” To explain the magnitude of the issue at hand, he points how when a vaccine for COVID-19 is found, it will have to be transported worldwide at the same time in all climatic zones. And, this will be possible only with the help of effective packaging solutions, amongst other factors.

Hence, the future holds unparalleled opportunities and challenges as far as pharma packaging and labelling sector is concerned. The industry will have to evolve constantly to meet the expectations of pharma stakeholders, be it guaranteeing efficacy of medicines, combating counterfeits, facilitating patient convenience and adherence, safeguarding logistics security, or conforming to regulatory requirements.

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1 Comment
  1. Sterin says

    Best article on post covid pharma packaging

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