Ensuring patients around the world get medicines during COVID-19

Facing unprecedented challenges, AbbVie’s resilience makes the difference in helping patients get the medicines they need.

By Azita Saleki-Gerhardt, Ph.D., executive vice president, operations, AbbVie

While the battle against COVID-19 rages on, it’s important to remember there are millions of patients around the world fighting a variety of chronic and deadly diseases every day, and they rely on medicines and other treatments to live. COVID-19 has created a unique challenge across the supply chain – including unanticipated demand beyond anything seen in years – as we work to make sure those patients get the medicines they need when they need them. For us, the term agility has taken on a new meaning.

Because people around the world depend on our medicines, we’re working hard to prevent any interruption to our production, while protecting the health and safety of our employees. As the head of global Operations at AbbVie and chair of our Executive Crisis Management Team, I have the privilege of working with a fantastic team of leaders across the company to manage the challenges that arise from crises to minimize any impact to employees and our business. Reflecting on past crises, each had a defined scope and duration. In many cases, the incident was limited to one product or geography and we knew with some level of certainty what the endpoint was.

AbbVie’s distribution teams work to ensure patients around the world get the medicines they need during the global pandemic.

This pandemic is the first crisis in memory to reach a truly global scale, and we don’t know when or how it may end. The many obstacles we and other pharmaceutical companies have had to overcome include:

  • Transporting critical medicines, which can be challenging, even in normal conditions. But when governments around the world are changing regulations every day and airports and borders are closed, the challenge of delivering these critical medicines in a timely manner becomes exponential.

  • Keeping our labs and manufacturing sites – and the people and equipment inside – safe and compliant with all internal and external quality regulations. During a global pandemic of an airborne pathogen, the health and well-being of our people, as well as maintaining the high standards of hygiene we have in our plants and labs becomes absolutely essential, and incredibly difficult.

  • In a manufacturing environment, standardization of our practices, along with the redundancy of our network, helps create a “right first time” approach that gets our medicines made and delivered as quickly as possible. We have leveraged that approach and enhanced our practices where needed to narrow the margin of error in an atmosphere of heightened urgency.
As part of our risk mitigation efforts, we have split many of our teams into shifts and have enhanced our cleaning practices in labs and on the manufacturing floor.

So what have we learned these past several months? You have heard COVID-19 being called a relentless enemy. But it’s an enemy that has brought out the best in our people. We all understand what’s at stake and know our patients are waiting for us to deliver. In the new “normal” moving forward, we continue our efforts to be prepared to face whatever challenges come next thanks to great teamwork and what we’ve learned:

Protecting critical skill sets

Like in many other industries, many of our employees are working remotely, practicing the social distancing needed to bend the curve of the pandemic. But there are critical jobs in our industry that must be done on site, and it’s those on-site essential employees we’re doing everything we can to protect. To assure best practices, we have split teams into shifts to allow more social distancing, enhanced our cleaning practices during the transition periods, and require each employee to be checked prior to coming to work and wear PPE once on site. If any employee develops symptoms, we evaluate the impact and that shift can be quarantined and the next shift can take over.

Agility has never been more important

The speed of COVID-19’s spread is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Anticipating, and then mitigating, challenges even more quickly is essential. We’ve learned we don’t have time to gather “perfect” data as we have acted with utmost urgency to protect our employees and supply to patients. That means using our best conservative knowledge at any given point to make decisions quickly.

Leverage best practices

Singapore, where one of our manufacturing sites is located, faced the pandemic crisis early on. The site responded quickly and implemented new and different controls and measures to assure routine production of our medicines. Based on their experience, we were able to share best practices with our other sites around the world, enabling a more agile response and assuring a steady supply of medicines manufactured in a structured and sustainable manner.

Compliance is key

Every product that ultimately is received by a patient must be of the highest quality, and no matter the chaos of the crisis, we must remain compliant in everything we do and assure product quality. We’re using technology in new ways to facilitate plant operations and address the needs of regulatory bodies around the world. We work with various agencies to understand the need, assure timely supply and help minimize drug shortage, when we can. Our Quality Assurance team has been actively benchmarking with similar teams at many different pharmaceutical companies across the globe to share ideas and information that will ultimately benefit all patients.


This crisis has reminded us all that the foundation of any business is the culture that binds people together to achieve a common vision. We’ve witnessed people not just doing their own job, but asking how they can help and do more. The spirit of All for One AbbVie has never been more apparent. This has been demonstrated through new ways of doing jobs, partnering with external stakeholders on a solution, or using our existing capabilities to do something we’ve never done because it would help patients in need. The crisis is far from over, and it continues to evolve. It is the culture of our company that keeps us strong, motivated and committed to making a difference.

AbbVie’s manufacturing, quality and supply chain teams have overcome many challenges of the global pandemic to make sure patients around the world get their medicines.

There are still so many unknowns about COVID-19 and what the “new normal” will look like for the near and long term. What we do know is that our patients’ needs won’t change. The battles they fight every day require us all to be tenacious and resilient in our efforts to make sure they get the medicines they need. One thing I know to be true after witnessing the past few months: when things are at their worst, we must be at our best because our patients expect and deserve nothing less.


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