Why digital systems are vital

Jan. 6, 2021
The UK Excel blunder was a stark warning for pharma manufacturers

The response to the coronavirus pandemic by the international scientific community has been extraordinary. There are more than 140 separate teams of researchers working on a vaccine and five candidates already in large-scale efficacy trials, not to mention large-scale testing programs established across the world. All this, just one year after the emergence of a novel virus which has impacted all eight billion human lives on the planet.

Considering the magnitude of this global effort, the 16,000 COVID-19 test results lost by Public Health England should serve as a stark warning for pharma manufacturers. The error, caused by the use of outdated XLS file formats which could only handle around 65,000 rows of data rather than the one-million rows Excel is actually capable of, had a huge impact on public trust in the UK’s testing system at a time when cases were on the rise.

Spreadsheet limitations

With logs produced by commercial firms analyzing swabs, the results were filed through text based lists on CSV files. An automatic process pulling this data into Excel templates was designed to upload the data onto a central system available for analysis by the National Health Service Test and Trace team and other government departments.

The use of the old XLS file format and the fact that each test result created several rows of data meant that each template was limited to just 1,400 cases. When that total was reached, further cases were simply left off. The XLSX file format, which superseded XLS in 2007, would have handled 16 times the number of cases.

For those skilled in working with vast amounts of data, particularly in the pharma manufacturing sector, this is hardly a surprising revelation.

As the world seeks to ramp up vaccine manufacturing capacity, consideration must be given to how modern planning and scheduling systems can ensure this is done in the most efficient manner to rapidly manufacture a vaccine en masse.

Reliable processes 

As vaccine trials continue around the world, I’d argue that having the right technology and systems in place to ensure the best manufacturing process will be as important as having the means of production on standby.

The use of an advanced planning and scheduling (APS) system will be critical in creating a single real-time plan to reduce lead times and optimize resources. The granularity of data far exceeds that of spreadsheets and users are able to use this to model scenarios based on resources, constraints and process time in order to make more effective decisions.

Spreadsheets are complex, inconsistent, prone to errors and out-of-date — not to mention time-consuming. With no visibility over processes, they are unable to show where there is capacity. Having a single source of data to base decisions on means no time lag and the assurance of a standardized dataset, leading to one single version of the truth.

This will be key to ramping up vaccine production quickly. After all, without a reliable basis of evidence, how can managers make informed decisions that ultimately drive performance? This will save all important time and reduce the likelihood of planning mistakes and delays — setbacks we can ill-afford.

Far from simply an embarrassing mistake, the UK government’s Excel blunder may have put lives at risk at a critical time for public health and pharma manufacturers must heed this warning. Spreadsheets will not be the platform that provides the planning and scheduling of the COVID-19 vaccine or vaccines for future pandemics. Having the right technology in place is critical to optimize resources, reduce lead times and create a single plan to get the world back to some form of normality. 

About the Author

Rod Schregardus | Pharma Manufacturing Lead, The Access Group