There are many considerations that go into deciding which mode of freight transport is the right fit for your trial. A lot depends on various factors, such as the material you’re shipping, timelines, temperature maintenance, and of course, the cost.

Over a six-month period, Arena International quizzed various supply professionals (all of whom are anonymous) to see what they think is the best way to transport clinical trial materials.

Intriguingly, their answers were varied, but telling…

Clinical Trials Arena: What considerations do you take into account when deciding to transport clinical supplies by plane versus by ship or by road?

Senior Clinical Supply Manager, based in Germany: In my experience, it's rare that we send anything by ship and that’s largely down to time frame. For instance, to transport anything over the Atlantic could take around four to six weeks, and that's definitely too long. Ordinarily, anything we transport over the Atlantic or the Pacific is by plane. The last mile, of course, is done by truck. Nevertheless, every shipment we send is controlled at either two to eight or two to 25 degrees. So in all instances, they are in isolated cardboard boxes.

Clinical Supply professional, based in Finland: We transport everything by plane, where possible, but that really depends on which region you’re in. In some regions, companies transport everything by truck because there’s an established road network. Nevertheless, in some cases it’s inefficient to transport supplies by truck. Shipping, for the most part, is not an option for us simply due to the amount of time it takes. There are all sorts of variables that you have to consider, such as the quantity of the supplies your transporting, so it’s difficult to give a generic answer. Whereas it’s cheaper to go by truck, if I could choose only one transport method, it would be by plane as it always works.

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Senior Associate, Clinical Trial Supplies, based in the UK: Naturally it depends on what you’re shipping. If it’s an urgent shipment, you'd go by air freight, if it's local then it would go by road transport. If was across the channel to France, it would go by road and train. In my experience, we haven’t shipped supplies by boat. I'm only familiar with air freight and road transport – I find those to be the most effective way of getting supplies to the destination.

In terms of cost, however, if we have other trials in various countries, and we have no other ways of shipping to those sites other than by air freight, obviously that would be an expensive method. Nevertheless, if it’s possible to ship by land that would be more cost-effective, especially if it’s locally in the UK. But if every aspect of a trial is being conducted in one country, we usually use road transport.

Senior Manager, Clinical Supply Chain, based in the Netherlands: A lot depends on the value and volume of the shipment. In a majority of cases, we distribute our medication via plane because the speed outweighs the volume and cost most of the time.

The thought process behind that comes down to the cost of supplies and where it is needed. For instance, on average it’s more expensive to transport supplies by plane than by freight, which is much slower.

Manager, Clinical Supplies and Logistics, based in the US: In assessing the mode of transport you’re likely to choose, the first thing you want to look at is the stability profile of the product – i.e. what can it stand? Depending on what you decide, you need to ensure the product isn’t exposed to excursions along the path of transport from door to door.

A lot starts from the vendors you’re going to use (i.e. couriers, CMOs, etc.), and whoever is recruited, the sponsor has to ensure they’re aware of local laws and international requirements. Having prior experience in transporting supplies internationally is essential, it goes without saying.

Senior Director, Supply Chain Management, based in the UK: Historically, my company has turned to air freight simply by virtue of the speed with which you can move things along. However, in recent times, we’ve moved more toward sea freight. It’s important to remember that it’s not just about the mode of transport but the degree of protection.

We adopt a risk-based approach where we look at the stability of the product and its value down to the trial design. We look at various factors, such as how critical the shipments are, the balance of how much is direct to site, and how much can be done via the depot. Within that whole picture of trying to balance cost, speed, risk, and value of the product, we do use more sea freight now.    

Director of Supply Chain Logistics, based in the US: For all the advantages of air freight, it’s not as reliable people think it is. The short answer would be if temperature control is your barometer then the ocean is your best option. The downside is there’s a little bit of a land mine – some pharma products are quite expensive, and if you’re bringing it into the US, most ocean fees are capped up to a certain point.  

Now, there’s nothing wrong with trucks because it’s almost two different solutions, especially when transporting supplies domestically or within Europe, for example. In the EU, you get relatively transparent borders, a reasonable road system, and pretty good distribution even into Eastern Europe overnight as a routine.

Drug Supply Manager, Clinical Supply Operations, based in the US: Usually, a lot depends on the timing. Shipping supplies by boat is probably the most cost efficient mode of transport, but it also incurs the most lead time. At our company, we’re looking at ways to make the transfer of supplies from warehouse to warehouse more efficient. Among our considerations is whether we want to ship products by air or by boat using a forecast planning method.

Specifically, we’re exploring the possibility of grouping warehouse transfers in one air shipment to one area. So, if we’re going to Argentina per se, we’d be more economical by using one flight. Unfortunately, most of our studies are by air, and that is due to the demand placed on getting drugs there quickly.    

Senior Clinical Distribution Manager, based in Switzerland: Regardless of whether you transport a product by ship, car or plane, it’s important you prepare your documents and that you know the current regulations, especially for Latin America and Asia. The regulations in those regions are constantly changing. You can ship something to China or Brazil a month ago, but once it arrives, the regulations may have changed and suddenly, you’re required to submit other documents.

Having worked in the industry for many years, one thing I’ve learnt is that you cannot expect drugs to be delivered to the sites if you don’t prepare properly. Communication is essential. While you may have a logistics expert in Basel, if they don’t communicate with their counterparts in Sao Paulo it won’t work.