Taking the reins during a crisis
Chester “Chip” Davis has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for 25 years, but he took his position as CEO of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance (HDA) at a critical time for the sector — his first day was March 2.
“There was nothing like having to rise up to respond to a pandemic to get you to assimilate into a new side of the pharmaceutical ecosystem in a rapid-fire fashion like has been presented to me in the last 100 days or so,” Davis told The Hill in a recent interview.
With the medical supply chain fully in the spotlight, the pharmaceutical distribution industry has offered its expertise to the Trump administration as scientists work frantically on a vaccine for the coronavirus.
Three months after the father of three took the job, Davis and the HDA made their pitch to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for the federal government to partner with and provide detailed guidance to pharmaceutical distributors on plans to get a future vaccine to the public.
Davis’s letter to HHS stressed that distributors have experience in delivering new medicines and can be integral in ensuring that inventories are pre-positioned in the supply chain, drugs are swiftly available to providers, vaccines can reach facilities designated under states’ emergency preparedness plans and distribution plans comply with regulations.
HDA’s membership includes the three top pharmaceutical distributors in the U.S.: McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, as well as 32 other distributors, pharmaceutical manufacturers and service providers.
While many Americans were transitioning to working from home and others were faced with closing businesses and rising unemployment, HDA immediately focused on “dealing with the exponential growth of the pandemic,” Davis said. HDA coordinated with supply chain partners, pharmacies, hospital systems and government entities, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state health departments.
“We had to make sure that COVID-related treatment and therapies were getting to the areas where they needed to get to obviously because the spread of the virus was not consistent across the country all at once,” he said.
The alliance helped facilitate feedback and acted as a conduit between its members and various government agencies, including around the development of temporary hospitals in places hardest hit by the U.S. outbreak.
“We could then communicate to various government agencies to make sure that there were no unintended regulatory barriers to making sure medicine got to places like pop-up hospitals,” said Davis, who previously worked in government relations at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and spent five years as CEO of the Association of Accessible Medicines, which represents manufacturers of generic and biosimilar medicines.
The pharmaceutical distribution industry has of course also had to focus on keeping the medicine supply chain moving and operating normally for needs unrelated to the coronavirus. Davis, who in the past also spent time working at AstraZeneca and the now-dissolved TAP Pharmaceuticals, touts the success the sector had with keeping medicines flowing.
“Remember walking down the … paper product aisle and finding nothing there? By and large, the pharmacies’ shelves had remained full throughout this pandemic for all of the health conditions that people rely on their pharmacies for. That hasn’t happened by accident,” he said.
“That has been a reflection to how resilient the pharmaceutical supply chain is and,” he added, “it really is a testament to our members and our partners both on the manufacturing end and on the pharmacy end.”
Now, the focus across the medical community is on when a vaccine will become available.
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, says he is optimistic a coronavirus vaccine will be available by the beginning of next year, and Trump administration officials have signaled they will take a “tiered approach” to giving out the vaccine when it is ready.
HDA is focused on getting HHS and other government agencies to recognize the important role that distributors have played so far in the pandemic and can play during planning for a vaccine.
“We want to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can … about the next incredible public health need. It will be around ensuring the appropriate and immediate distribution of not just the vaccines when they arrive, and we obviously all look forward to that day, but increased therapeutics, too,” said Davis, who was born in Long Island, N.Y.
HHS requested information in June from supply chain stakeholders, trade associations and other organizations on the strategic national stockpile, to which HDA responded, stressing that the pharmaceutical wholesale distribution segment of the supply chain is highly efficient and sophisticated.
“Every business day, HDA’s member companies deliver healthcare products across the United States to their more than 180,000 pharmacy, hospital, nursing home, physician and clinic customers,” the alliance wrote.
HDA also voiced its support for resources or incentives for manufacturers to ramp up production to meet domestic supply needs during a pandemic or other health emergency.
The resiliency of the national stockpile has become a political issue amid reports of shortages of personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden released a plan this month for ensuring the U.S. doesn’t face shortages of critical products, especially medical equipment. He accused President Trump of making the supply chain less secure.
“I do think it’s really important for us to recognize — not in a way that reflects any type of surprise — that one of the most valuable assets I think the health care system has had through dealing with the increased surge associated with COVID-19 is that the medical supply chain has been very resilient,” Davis said.
He stressed that HHS has said the private sector distribution industry has a critically important role and that his industry is prepared to be just as important going forward.
“I suspect that if they’re taking that approach with the strategic national stockpile, there’s a recognition that as vaccines and additional treatments come on board, that distributors are going to play a vital role in ensuring successful access to those therapeutics and vaccines for both providers and patients,” he said.