AmerisourceBergen supply leader Heather Zenk on lessons learned during pandemic

Supply chain companies have faced unprecedented changes and challenges in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, from shortages of commonly used medical supplies and drugs to quickly pivoting distribution of different therapies as new research comes out on the most effective treatments for the virus. 

Heather Zenk, PharmD, senior vice president of strategic global sourcing at AmerisourceBergen, recently talked with Becker's about the lessons AmerisourceBergen has learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, how it's adjusted its business operations and how it's preparing to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Q: How has AmerisourceBergen learned to combat drug shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Dr. Heather Zenk: We were in constant communication with manufacturers to buy in-demand inventory as quickly as possible to meet increased orders from hospitals, pharmacies and providers' offices while also ensuring supply chain stability for future patient needs. 

We educated health systems and providers on the reasons why concentrating inventory at the distributor level rather than at any one site of care keeps the supply chain nimble enough to support patients anywhere. To reinforce this, we placed safeguards on products in high demand to create stability of supply and to prevent well-intentioned overstocking of products. 

Q: How has your allocation strategy changed during the course of the pandemic? 

HZ: Our updated allocation system took into account that, in hot zone areas, product needs are truly emergent and may not be adequately deduced based on historical demand. The system accounted for demand from customers by more heavily weighting recent requests rather than demand from one month prior. This was incredibly important as new hot spots quickly emerged. Additionally, with some customers experiencing a slowing of patient volume amid social- distancing guidance, we saw a decrease in product need, so we froze allocation for pre-COVID times so we know what to buy again once things get closer to normal.

Q: In what ways do drugs being granted emergency use authorization alter normal operations? 

HZ: This alters the normal launch and distribution process because it allows the use of unapproved medical products to diagnose, treat or prevent serious diseases. Because it’s a different process than FDA-approved products, there are valid questions and concerns from pharmacies and providers about reimbursement for the administration of a COVID-19 vaccine. Understanding payer requirements and billing processes for an EUA product is essential.

Q: What are some ongoing changes to your business caused by the COVID-19 pandemic?  

HZ: There’s been a refreshed feeling of pride across the company, and we have a renewed sense of purpose and intellectual confidence. The pandemic has changed our approach to business continuity plans, and we now have a different perspective as we navigate hurricane season. Not only does the pandemic add an additional layer to our emergency planning, but it has also taught us that we need to add an increased focus on the human capital behind what we do. Now, when we are talking about business continuity plans, we’re having both the humanness and business continuity run equally. We now truly understand the importance of focusing on the human aspect of our plans. 

Q: How is AmerisourceBergen preparing for distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine?

HZ: Given the scope and speed-to-market requirements, the entire industry must work together to support the transport, storage and distribution of a vaccine. Manufacturers should be planning a commercial launch and considering several scenarios, such as whether they will use emergency use authorization or get FDA approval to launch their vaccine. It’s important to remember that the U.S. government will own the initial allocations of a COVID-19 vaccine because of their upfront investments and deals with manufacturers. Therefore, we won’t likely have a true commercial launch of a COVID-19 vaccine until mid- to late 2021.

Some of the key vaccine candidates may require frozen or deep frozen transport and storage solutions to support their specific temperature-sensitive needs. Manufacturers will need to identify the correct packaging and end-to-end cold chain maintenance to ensure the vaccine remains viable throughout transportation. Throughout the planning process, manufacturers should maintain transparency with their partners so they can build an effective supply chain strategy to protect the product integrity through transport, storage and distribution. At AmerisourceBergen, we’ve been thinking about everything from cold chain/refrigerated storage space to account setup to the logistics of how and when we can help in development. 

More articles on supply chain:
HHS outlines plan for distributing COVID-19 vaccine
White House blocks trade adviser from testifying about Philips ventilator deal
Employers avoid LabCorp, Quest, use small labs to speed COVID-19 test results

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