IT Is Weapon In Bioterrorism Battle

Supply-chain systems enlisted to play defensive role

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

October 20, 2001

3 Min Read

As the nation comes to grips with the reality of bioterrorism, concern is centering on how well prepared the pharmaceuticals industry, the government, and hospitals are to react to outbreaks. Supply-chain systems will be vital to threading together efforts to support the quick and efficient delivery of vaccines and antibiotics to combat anthrax, smallpox, and other diseases.

The government has vendor-managed inventory contracts with drugmakers and medical-supplies manufacturers to manage the buildup of antibiotics and other necessities in eight warehouses around the country to help in the fight against bioterrorism, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson says. He and other officials are keeping quiet on the technology used in its vendor-managed inventory system.

But Mike Gruich, supply-chain project manager at Detroit Medical Center, a large hospital-chain operator, says the system it has in place will help the 10 city hospitals that it runs be as prepared as possible for potential attacks. Hospital personnel make rounds to every floor of each hospital about every four hours to count supplies that have been used since the last round. This data is recorded by a handheld computer, transmitted to a dedicated PC in each hospital, and sent via electronic data interchange to Allegiance Corp., which books the order and routes it in real time to a Romulus, Mich., warehouse. There, an automated inventory picking system pulls each item in each hospital's order and stacks it in a sequence that lets high-priority items be pulled first and delivered immediately.

Allegiance maintains a large stock of every item the hospital orders at the warehouse and can quickly replenish its own stock from other warehouses around the country, Gruich says. That lets the hospital maintain a small inventory of the supplies it needs, confident that it can get what it requires in an emergency.

But none of that will help if pharmaceutical companies don't have the manufacturing and IT systems in place to quickly produce and track antibiotics on a large scale. Bayer Corp., maker of the anthrax-fighting antibiotic Ciprofloxacin, has shipped 50 million Cipro tablets in the past month, more than twice its monthly average. It's looking at tripling manufacturing and packaging capabilities to meet the government's demand of 200 million Cipro tablets over the next three months. Bayer said last week that it would consider seeking help from competitors to handle the demand.

The pharmaceutical company wouldn't comment on what role its IT systems would play in its efforts. But PeopleSoft supply-chain evangelist Bob Reary, who worked for pharmaceutical companies before joining the software vendor, says drugmakers are likely to pump up inventory-management systems so they can ship medications as soon as they're manufactured (rather than test each batch for quality first), mark them as quarantined at the warehouse, and then notify the government when testing is complete and the quarantine can be lifted.

Says Reary, "That can cut the time between production and release of the drug for use from 12 weeks to four or five. That will be required in these times."

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