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The trends shaping pharma packaging and the supply chain in 2021

The trends shaping pharma packaging and the supply chain in 2021

By Rich Quelch, Global Head of Marketing, Origin


2020 has been a year like no other.

But while it’s been hugely challenging for the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors, 2020 was a pivotal and defining year, nonetheless. Some would go far as to call it transformational, with the lessons learned, solutions crafted and investment received, set to change the future of pharma for years to come.

So, against the backdrop of an unprecedented 2020, what can we expect from pharma packaging and the supply chain in 2021?

Deal or no deal?

At the time of writing, intense negotiations are taking place in Brussels and it’s still unclear whether the UK will walk away from the EU with a deal.

It’s widely accepted that a no-deal Brexit could be potentially disastrous for the pharmaceutical industry, at least in the short term.

Among the concerns are border delays affecting the supply of pharmaceutical products, some medicines disappearing from shelves if they become uneconomic to supply to the UK market, inflated costs for the NHS and new vulnerabilities/weaknesses which could be exploited by sophisticated criminal networks.

However, there will also be opportunities for the UK to blaze the trail with new regulations and practices to protect patient safety, support innovation in drug development, run world-leading clinical trials and eliminate falsified and counterfeit medicines from the supply chain.

A tipping point for the pharma supply chain

 Decades of underinvestment in global pharma supply chain networks mean we’re faced with pre-existing shortcomings at a time when billions of people around the world are looking to the pharmaceutical industry to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine. All in less than 12 months after the novel Coronavirus was first identified.

Despite linking the laboratory to the marketplace, the supply chain hasn’t received the same focus and investment given to the discovery, development and marketing of pharma products. And it shows.

But this immense global vaccination project could be the tipping point we’ve been waiting for to kick start the next generation pharma supply chain, strengthening supply chains for existing treatments and services for years to come.

Meeting global sustainability targets

The pharmaceutical industry, with its global manufacturing and supply chain networks, is a major contributor to climate change. But, it’s also a leading force in helping to minimise the adverse effects of climate change through innovation, partnership and education.

Reducing pharmaceutical waste, particularly the use of single-use plastic, remains a key challenge. In 2021, as sustainability initiatives continue to grow and mature, the benefits of bio-based PET will be further explored and new bioplastics will be used more widely – for example, ethylene derived from sugarcane which has a negative carbon footprint, using CO2 and releasing oxygen when cultivated. 

Pioneering technologies used in the design and development of drug packaging will also continue to evolve, such as those which convert PET waste back into virgin grade material to be used again. 3D visualisation and printing will also become more widely adopted, helping to reduce waste by eliminating the need for multiple prototype designs. 

The mantra of Quality by Design (QbD) will continue to transform manufacturing processes, helping to reduce wastage and eliminate degraded and contaminated products from the supply chain. Its central principle is that quality is built into a product from the outset, improving safety, efficacy and patient experience.

The rapid rise of biologics

Biologic drugs, produced from living organisms, are ushering in a new era for pharma, based on their proven ability to treat major chronic diseases better than existing alternatives.

However, their fragility to external environmental factors makes their manufacturing, shipment and storage much more complicated. To deliver safe and effective biologics, pharma and its stakeholders have been working hard to meet these efficacy requirements but there’s still a lot more to do as demand increases for these novel drug types.

In 2021 we can expect to see exciting innovations in packaging for biologics. Fluoropolymers – which don’t use any leachable or degradable stabilising additives – are increasingly being used to form a resistant barrier to eliminate biodegradation issues. So too are cyclic olefin plastics (very rigid thermoplastics) which are intrinsically very inert, composed of just carbon and hydrogen. 

Smart packaging matures

In 2021, smart packaging technologies, providing significant and advanced functionality, will continue to mature, making products safer and more convenient, and extending their shelf life.

In clinical trials, smart packaging (featuring RFID tags) and wearable devices will promote greater secure interaction between patient and doctor by using real-time data to monitor compliance, identify side effects faster and improve health outcomes for both volunteers and, in the longer term, the wider community. 

QR-enabled packaging, scannable on a smartphone, will support efforts to increase health literacy and patient compliance and improve the user experience. Another example is RFID technology which uses electromagnetic fields to identify and track pharma products without physical contact. These labels are valuable for anti-counterfeiting applications and can indicate whether or not a product has been used. 

Child-resistant design becomes more advanced

CRP is another area where innovation will accelerate in 2021, fuelled in part by the expanding CBD market.

As more manufacturers compete, design innovations including caps that integrate measuring beakers and use sustainable materials over single-use plastic will become more common.

The shift towards non-re-closable designs will also become more widespread, providing the peace of mind of offering a higher level of protection to the medicine, plus a longer shelf-life.

Ziplock bags are another popular advancement; a single-entry design that requires mature dexterity to slide a zipper open to access the contents. The bags can easily be opened and re-secured by adults but provide a barrier to entry to children. Many designs even include a flap that covers the zipper when the bag is closed, disguising the entry point as an added layer of security.


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