Question: What does it take to deliver at least 1.5 billion doses of medicine to over 70 countries each year?
Answer: A first-rate supply chain.
For many people, the phrase “supply chain” evokes memories of economics courses or images of jumbo jets featuring transport company logos.
For neglected tropical disease (NTD) experts, it means something else: a lifeline serving millions of people at risk for or already affected by disabling and disfiguring diseases like river blindness, trachoma, and elephantiasis (lymphatic filariasis).
This complex infrastructure, considered “the backbone of global NTD programs,” was featured in a recent article that outlined a unique public-private partnership managed by The Task Force: the NTD Supply Chain Forum.
“A lot of people don’t pay attention to supply chain because it often just operates quietly in the background, but this partnership has tangible goals and provides a big value-add to the community” said Ashley Souza, MPH, Special Assistant/Project Manager for The Task Force’s NTD Support Center.
The forum focuses on five NTDS (lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, soil-transmitted helminthiasis, onchocerciasis, and trachoma) that are collectively known as the preventive chemotherapy NTDs because a major part of the intervention strategy for each is based on delivery of preventive treatment to the entire eligible, at-risk population via mass drug administration (MDA).
The drugs required to treat the diseases are of relatively low cost; however, the cumulative cost of purchasing and transporting drugs and administering MDA to the entire at-risk population generally kept it beyond the reach of most endemic countries until pharmaceutical companies stepped in to provide in-kind donations. The announcement of the donation programs finally made wide-scale control and elimination of NTDs possible.
With an eye towards maximizing efficiencies in the supply chain to ensure the right quantity of medicine gets to the right place, at the right time, every time, the forum partners developed a tracking system that allows ministries of health and other partners to track NTD treatments at any stage of the supply process — from when the medicine is ordered to its delivery to the port of entry. This system also enables pharmaceutical donors and the NTD community to track how many treatments are being provided for the MDA.
“Previously, everybody knew there were supply chain challenges, but we were all addressing them individually,” said Cassandra Holloway, MBA, Project Support Specialist for The Task Force’s Children Without Worms (CWW) program and manager of the forum. “When the partnership was formed, it provided a safe space for national programs, NGO partners, and pharmaceutical donors to come together, discuss challenges, and create solutions collaboratively.”
The partnership includes six pharmaceutical companies who donate the treatments: Eisai; Johnson & Johnson; GlaxoSmithKline; Merck & Co., Inc.; Merck KgaA; and Pfizer; as well as program representatives from The Task Force (four programs: International Trachoma Initiative, CWW, Mectizan® Donation Program, and the NTD Support Center) and RTI; and other partners such as DHL Logistics, the World Health Organization, USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Standard Code, which manages the database technology.
The forum is the first-ever platform for NTD supply chain experts to collaborate on and test tools, yielding lessons about custom processes, standard operating procedures, and shipping requirements. The approach enables accurate forecasting and planning, providing all parties insight on short- and long-term needs so they can make informed decisions. While the focus is on preventive chemotherapy NTDs, the learnings are applicable to all NTDs and other diseases.
“Strengthening the NTD supply chain has been identified as one of the top priority areas in the World Health Organization’s new NTD Roadmap so regardless of whether the Forum is formally expanded to include other diseases, we wanted to share our learnings to benefit other public health efforts,” said Souza.
The Task Force is a natural home for the forum due to our long history of NTD elimination programs, extensive supply chain expertise, and track record as a trusted convener of different stakeholders.
“Much of the success of the forum is due to the partners’ willingness to convene around a common goal. It’s an amazing amount of time and energy that are donated by the individual members from 17 partner organizations who see the value in this work to help end the neglect of NTDs,” said Holloway.
Next month, the management of the Supply Chain Forum will be transitioning from The Task Force’s Children Without Worms program to its International Trachoma Initiative.