All Hands On Deck: How critical life sciences and healthcare cargo keeps moving to safeguard patient health during the global COVID-19 crisis

  • Global teams at DHL work around the clock to safeguard supply chains for key medical products and respirators across the world
  • Special solutions are created to ensure healthcare providers and patients receive life-saving equipment

Arguably, the supply chain for Life Sciences and Healthcare (LSH) is always "critical". Whether it’s a patient sample or investigative drug for clinical trials, temperature-sensitive biologics for immunization compounds or a life-saving personalized cancer drug - all need to be handled and delivered with precision, expertise and also often at high speed, and "urgent need" basis.

However, at times of crisis, be it a natural disaster or an outbreak of disease, the movement of critical LSH goods supplies takes on an extraordinary level of importance. Never has this been truer than during the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, as governments and healthcare providers around the world frantically scramble to stock up on everything from masks to respirators, while consumers stockpile medication and pharma companies consolidate and move their stock globally ahead of anticipated extra demand.

“It’s been beyond extraordinary,” admits Larry St. Onge, President of DHL’s Life Sciences and Healthcare sector. “I've seen many emergency situations: the ash cloud that brought the airspace over Europe to a standstill in 2010, for example, or the aftermath of the 2018 hurricane in Puerto Rico. On both of those occasions we had to do the seemingly impossible in order to get shipments to customers and patients. However, what we're seeing right now is really unprecedented in its scale and magnitude because the entire world needs millions of tons of medicines, and vast numbers of medical devices and hospital equipment all at once.”

A strong system

St. Onge and a team of over 12,000 trained DHL Life Sciences & Healthcare logistics specialists face an even tougher challenge globally as precious cargo space is included on board the 75 percent of passenger traffic that has currently been grounded. “As customers are asking us to ship more, and at speed, and several government agencies need our help too, we are having to come up with special innovative solutions,” he explains. “We have created the DHL Healthcare System, a member network of all the passionate, committed, trained employees throughout all of DHL business units with one singular focus on ensuring we understand and act with the driving concept that there is a patient at the end of every order we fill, and of every shipment we deliver. Thanks to the strength of that system, we have been able to reserve and leverage space on our DHL Express flights, along with managing a complicated system of dedicated charters and negotiated block space agreements through DHL Global Forwarding, to deliver urgent, life-saving drugs and equipment on behalf of our customers and, ultimately, the patients who need these treatments."

“Moreover,“ St. Onge adds “we face border closures at times -  and in places where warehouse workers have a daily commute between two countries. Here DHL Supply Chain has put in place contingency plans to immediately separated one shift into day and night shift operations to lessen risk.  We have even rented hotel rooms to ensure that workers who are able to, can stay safe and conveniently located after their shifts and avoid having to cross a border that might be closed at any time and, effectively, shut the warehouse down. Caring is a core value for us, throughout DHL.”

Caring for customers and patients

“Our teams have been outstanding,” says St. Onge. “I believe we have the greatest logistics team around the world, all working with passion and purpose. Our motto is ‘DHL - We Care’ and we are all keenly aware that our jobs are more than just picking orders or making deliveries. We know that every shipment matters to the health and quality of life for one or many patients and their families. With this understanding, we know every step in our process, handling and quality control must be done with 100 percent precision, accuracy and timely delivery. In a sector such as life sciences and healthcare, there is no margin for error. Our continuous investments in sector specific expertise, processes, GDP and GMP compliant infrastructures with a global network of certified facilities allowed us to respond almost immediately to the demands of the current outbreak situation. However, what our teams are doing just now is astonishing. It’s all hands on deck and working around the clock to ensure that we deliver for our customers.“

Delivering to worst hit areas

DHL’s teams have performed remarkable feats, from airlifting much-needed LSH goods to Northern Italy, the European epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, from the company’s European hub in Leipzig, Germany, to operating special deliveries under a "must have" permit to the  Chinese city of Wuhan while it was under total lockdown.

At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, DHL shipped mainly from the US and Europe to China, then across Asia – and now we see a flow of medical goods out from China and other places in Asia.

“I could not be more proud of our team,” comments St. Onge. “We all move ‘As One’ and spirits are high, despite the extra workload. Meanwhile we have received many emails and calls from our customers thanking us for a job well done, which have been particularly rewarding. This helps us keep our motivation even higher as we play our part in helping the world fight COVID-19.”

“We are committed and are working tirelessly,” he adds, “and we will continue to do so until this crisis is over.” — Michelle Bach

Published: March 2020

images: DHL; iStock