How drugmakers can avoid another devastating respiratory season

Sept. 27, 2023
As we debrief from the previous respiratory season, here are some ways pharma manufacturers can best position themselves for the season to come

As we near the end of the year, many businesses are now focusing on strategic planning for the remaining months. For pharmaceutical manufacturers, this often means planning for respiratory season, whose high rates of illness are typically observed between December and February. 

The most recent respiratory season was characterized by a high demand for medications, a low supply of those same medications, and widespread illness. As we debrief from the previous respiratory season, here are some ways pharma manufacturers can best position themselves for the season to come.  

Last year’s challenging respiratory season  

The 2022-2023 respiratory season was a maelstrom of influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and COVID-19, with some experts dubbing it the 'tripledemic.' As both children and adults continued to contract these respiratory ailments, demand for lifesaving medication skyrocketed. Ordinarily, this spike in demand wouldn’t necessarily pose an insurmountable challenge. However, a second challenge was developing in parallel: supply shortages.  

On a wide scale, the pharma industry was grappling with complex supply issues. How did this happen? It may be impossible to ascertain a definitive cause, but there are several potential explanations — several of which were beyond manufacturers’ control.  

  • Generic alternatives: When brand-name medications first hit the market, they often do so with robust production levels to establish a competitive market share. After their initial patent expires, however, generic alternatives may begin to take hold, which can alter the production landscape. By no means novel, nefarious or exclusive to respiratory-related medications, this natural process of shifting production may have unintentionally contributed to marketplace shortages.   
  • FDA backlogs: According to some estimates, the FDA has been chronically understaffed and underfunded. This shortcoming can often lead to serious backlogs when it comes to approving drugs for widespread use or performing regular facility inspections, and it certainly could’ve been a key factor in the industry’s supply challenges.  
  • Lack of preparation: Manufacturers could’ve been simply unprepared for the influx of supply. This could be due to poor forecasting and extrapolation from the 2021–2022 respiratory season, brittle supply chains that couldn’t withstand pressure, a lack of contingency planning, or perhaps inadequate technology that — while perhaps sufficient to maintain operations under less strenuous circumstances — stood in the way of efficient, reliable, cost-effective production.  

In the face of the supply shortage fallout, attempting to determine the 'why' or seeking to point a metaphorical finger at one specific cause or entity can be enticing. However, blame for the sake of blame does not beget change. Understanding that — as with most disruptions in life — the causality is multi-pronged and will therefore require a multi-pronged solution, is what will see circumstances like this abated in the future.  

During the most recent respiratory season, the primary manufacturer of liquid albuterol, which treats asthma and RSV in children, was forced to shutter its main facility. Shortages like this affect numerous parties up and down the supply chain: the secondary suppliers forced to spring into action, the hospital administrators responsible for business planning, the health care workers who administer care, and, of course, the patients who desperately rely on the medication in question.   

Moving forward with technology 

With the understanding that manufacturers are helpless to control regulatory and governmental factors, what can they do to help ensure their businesses are resilient, nimble and prepared for the unexpected?  

This year, manufacturers can set themselves up for success with advanced technology. 

With the right tools in place, manufacturers can plan better for the future and more nimbly respond to unexpected hurdles, ensuring that plans B, C and D can be activated when necessary. There are many powerful yet accessible software solutions available for today’s manufacturers, including those that offer production oversight and management, contextualized roadmaps with data-driven insights, and even supply chain planning. Armed with these powerful tools, pharma manufacturers can confidently plan for the next respiratory season, despite the potential for an uphill challenge. To best position themselves, manufacturers must ensure they have the following in their toolbox:  

  • Visibility is a must-have for any manufacturer: How can they be transparent with customers and stakeholders without a clear view of their operations? With optimal visibility into inventory, raw material traceability, current operating status, distribution channels and more, pharmaceutical manufacturers can give customers plenty of advance notice about potential shortfalls in production and help pave the way for a smoother respiratory season.  
  • Contextualized insights empower manufacturers to make the right decision at the right time for their business: As mentioned, visibility is crucial, but it will mean nothing without an accompanying roadmap to steer manufacturers in the right direction. Today’s leading platforms ingest data from all facets of a manufacturing facility and strategically highlight potential areas for improved efficiency. These insights can help manufacturers compare last year’s preparations versus realized outcomes to avoid gaps and hurdles in the future.  
  • Overall optimization is often the result of implementing advanced manufacturing technology: With such powerful tools in their arsenal, manufacturers almost can’t help but improve their workflows and processes across the board. By leveraging real-time monitoring and an easy-to-use mission control UI, pharma manufacturers can shore up their supply chain, eliminate wasteful processes, optimize material usage, reduce costs, and more. Ultimately, today’s advanced technology is specifically designed to make managing production as simple as possible — which is supremely helpful in the face of something as complex as respiratory season.  

Plan now to avoid congestion when it counts  

No business is perfect, and no amount of insight or preparation can ensure a company is primed to weather every unprecedented — or precedented — event. As we saw during the most recent respiratory season, there are numerous factors beyond any one business’ control. Yet with digital technologies continuing to crop up in an increasingly populated, improvement-focused marketplace, manufacturers should no longer be content to operate inefficiently. Improvement, true improvement, is no longer a niche achievement but rather a widely available result born out of calculated counsel, action, and a commitment to not only one’s customer base but to one's own business.    

With any luck, this coming respiratory season will see people having easy access to requisite medications and treatments. As technology adoption increases and pharma companies continue to elevate and improve their operations, luck — it can be hoped — won’t have any part to play. 

About the Author

Nic Azad | TrakSYS Communications Lead, Parsec