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Cutting the carbon footprint of pharma’s supply chain

Pharma, like every other industry, has an impact on the environment – and in the face of a climate crisis, it has a responsibility to find ways to mitigate this harm. In a GlobalData survey conducted last year, 43% of respondents considered the environment the most pressing ESG (environmental, social and governance) issue for the pharmaceutical sector to address.

As members of an industry that emits more greenhouse gases than the automotive sector, drug companies must make a concerted effort to reduce the carbon footprint associated with getting their medicines to patients – but how?

Starting sustainably

Every stage of the pharmaceutical supply chain has a carbon footprint – right down to the very beginning, where the raw materials for active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) are sourced.

Jing-Ke Weng is co-founder of Double Rainbow Biosciences, a sustainable biotech dedicated to developing new therapeutics with minimal impact on the environment. He says the manufacture of APIs for small-molecule drugs relies largely on chemicals derived from petroleum, a fossil fuel.

There are many energy-intensive steps in the chemical synthesis of raw materials and solvents, Weng explains. And the amount of carbon it takes to make these molecules is usually not calculated, he says.

Double Rainbow’s long-term vision is to replace fossil fuel-reliant manufacturing with methods based on synthetic biology and inspired by the chemical processes seen in nature.

Weng’s group is trying to assemble microbial enzymes from diverse sources in a particular manner to make a molecule that can be incorporated into a new or existing drug. “Conventionally, these compounds have to come from natural resources, but now we have new technology to entirely replace that with a fermentation-based method, which is a major step.”

Mitigating manufacturing’s impact

Manufacturing the finished pharmaceutical product is another carbon-intensive stage of a pharma company’s supply chain. One of the most effective ways of reducing carbon emissions associated with drug production is to adopt continuous manufacturing, an efficient alternative to batch manufacturing, that combines multiple separate production stages into one single, continuous production line.

In 2014, US biotech Amgen opened a $200m biomanufacturing plant incorporating continuous purification methods in Singapore.

French healthcare company Sanofi followed suit in 2019, opening a continuous manufacturing plant in Massachusetts, US, that it said will generate 80% less carbon emissions than the company’s first-generation facility.

“Continuous process manufacturing has been evolving rapidly over the last six to 10 years,” says Scott Lawson, a partner at professional services network PwC. “The focus has been on small-molecule manufacturing principles and big pharma has made investments in this space ”. However, now that is being translated into what Lawson calls mid-tier pharma companies as well.

“We’ve seen the number of authorised products [made with continuous manufacturing] increase over the last two to three years – and as that portfolio increases, the use of continuous manufacturing becomes more attractive.”

Weng says Double Rainbow has successfully implemented their sustainable, fermentation-based manufacturing technology on both a small and tonne-level scale.

Still, he says it’s going to take a lot of effort to expand to more complicated compounds or other drug molecules that are currently on the market. “There are existing infrastructures [to adopt sustainable fermentation widely], but the whole industry will need to do a lot of rethinking and reallocation of its resources, so we are better prepared for that transition.”

Winds of change: renewable energy in pharma manufacturing

If pharma and biotech companies are to meaningfully curb their carbon emissions over the next few years, moving away from fossil fuels and shifting to greener, renewable energy resources is a necessary step.

In 2021, energy and automation giant Schneider Electric – ranked the world’s most sustainable corporation that same year – launched the Energize programme to increase the pharmaceutical industry’s access to renewable energy. Through Energize, drugmakers will be given the opportunity to access and contract for renewable energy throughout their value chain.

These include AstraZeneca, Biogen, GSK, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), MSD, Novartis, Pfizer, Novo Nordisk, Sanofi, and Takeda.

When it comes to greener energy, at least, the pharma industry at large appears committed to making changes. In addition to collaborating on the Energize programme, many large drug companies have set ambitious carbon reduction targets for themselves.

J&J aims to get its electricity solely from renewable sources by 2025, with goals to achieve carbon neutrality across its own operations by 2030 and net zero emissions across its value chain by 2045. By 2025, MSD plans to be carbon neutral across its operations, and aims to reduce value chain emissions by 30% before 2030.

Pfizer has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2030 and will, among other strategies, reduce direct emissions by 46% and purchase 100% of its electricity from renewable sources. Following a virtual power purchase agreement with Vesper Energy, Pfizer expects its North American operations to be 100% solar-powered by the end of 2023.

Over in Europe, Novartis is working to achieve carbon neutrality across its operations by 2025 and throughout its supply chain by 2030. The Swiss company’s chief sustainability officer, Montse Montaner, told Pharmaceutical Technology: “Novartis is on track to deliver its 2025 carbon neutrality target for our own operations, with a 34% reduction in Co2 emissions achieved to-date, compared to our 2016 baseline”.

“We have developed a detailed framework and robust plan to underpin effective collaboration with suppliers towards delivery of our 2030 carbon neutrality targets,” she adds.

Multinational Catalent, however, has beaten many of its fellow pharma players to the punch; in 2021, the company announced that an impressive 97% of its electricity usage had been obtained from renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, and biomass.

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