While it might not be the first industry that comes to mind when you think of pollution, pharma is a significant contributor to climate change, notes University of San Diego School of Business clinical professor of business law Richard Custin.

According to a 2019 study by researchers at McMaster University in Canada, the global pharma industry emits more greenhouse gases than the automotive production sector. Data from 2015 shows that, on average, pharma emits 48.55 tonnes of carbon dioxide per million dollars, which is about 55% higher than the automotive sector’s 31.5 tonnes.

In order for the sector to comply with international emissions targets, such as those enshrined in the 2016 Paris Agreement, the researchers found that the pharma sector would need to reduce its emissions by 59% from the 2015 levels. Lead author of the study McMaster University Eco-entrepreneurship chair and associate professor Lotfi Belkhir wrote in a recent Conversation article: “Healing people is no justification for killing the planet.”

Added into the mix is that pharma is “also tasked with minimising the adverse effects global warming has on health”, pharma packaging company Origin global head of marketing Rich Quelch notes. He believes “becoming more sustainable, efficient and adaptive” is a double win for the industry to be able to slow climate change and respond to any health consequences.

Commit to bold global sustainability action

Not only is finding, financing and implementing eco-friendly solutions a challenge for the industry, but there is also the added issue of “satisfying short term expectations of investors while addressing long term sustainability goals”, Custin notes.

Despite these barriers, there are signs the pharma industry is starting to take its sustainability responsibilities more seriously. Custin lists Bayer as an example of good behaviour in terms of its commitments to the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. In addition, AstraZeneca recently committed to investing $1bn to achieve zero carbon emissions from its global operations by 2025 and ensure its value chain is entirely carbon negative by 2030.

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Although these commitments are encouraging, one company or country implementing these solutions is just a drop in the ocean.

“To tackle the climate emergency will require global partnership between a very wide range of stakeholders; fighting climate change really is not something one company can do on their own,” states AstraZeneca vice-president of sustainability, strategy and engagement Jim Massey. “We know we don’t currently have all the answers, but we are confident…we and others will identify the necessary solutions, including through innovative technological advancements.”

To this end, here is an eco-wish list, which features examples of good practice, looking at how the entire pharmaceutical industry can work to be more sustainable and eco-friendly with the aim of achieving the Paris Agreement commitments and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Leverage technology to reduce manufacturing waste

Both Custin and Quelch view pharmaceutical waste management as a serious priority to making the industry more sustainable. The method by which therapeutic products are developed through multiple prototype iterations creates “a huge amount of waste”, Dassault Systèmes life sciences director Richard Coxon notes.

Pharma manufacturing also creates a lot of by-products that leach into the environment, which contributes to the evolution of drug-resistant microorganisms, and has significant global for human health.

Although AstraZeneca, for example, aims to tackle this by publishing externally validated “targets describing safe discharge limits for drug production and formulation facilities”, as Massey explains, there is still a need to optimise pharma manufacturing to reduce waste from both the drugs and their by-products, as well as less carbon emissions from running the factory itself.

“3D visualisation and printing [as] eliminating the need for multiple prototype designs,” Quelch points out. Coxon notes that Dassault Systèmes could, in the future, use its 3D technology to build models in the virtual world of a company’s supply chain. Instead of having to produce several versions of a therapeutics’ production process, Coxon notes “we can model opportunities to improve efficiencies in the factory itself, as well as the final product.”

To the end of enabling the factory itself to more efficiently produce drugs, Cure Pharmaceutical’s oral thin film-based drug delivery platform can “eliminate many of the steps that traditional pharma processes require” and therefore “makes the most efficient use of time and energy”, the company’s vice-president of manufacturing Steven Ruhl explains. Ruhl notes that Cure’s process has “direct labour costs less than 50% of a traditional pharmaceutical manufacturing plant” and the equipment requires less cleaning, which wastes water and power.

Promote personalised medicine to reduce waste

Pharma waste does not only come from the manufacturing process, but also from patients’ disposal of unused medicine. They may get rid of drugs for a range of reasons, such as they were ineffective for that patient, they caused adverse events or they simply were over-prescribed or some pills expired.

However, personalised medicines create a situation where patients can be treated once with an effective treatment that is tailored specifically for them. Medidata global compliance and strategy principal Fiona Maini explains, therefore, that personalised medicine could mitigate challenges around pharmaceutical waste, particularly because it drives more adherence.

Although the manufacture of personalised therapies is currently incredibly inefficient and wasteful – Novartis, for instance, has struggled to develop Kymriah in an appropriate time scale since its approval last year – researchers from universities across Virginia have argued that 3D printing could drive efficiencies for these more advanced therapies, in the same way as it can for traditional pharma products.

Optimise supply chains with electric vehicles and AI

Central to AstraZeneca’s recent $1bn commitment to be carbon free by 2025 and carbon negative by 2030 is a move to “renewable energy for both power and heat….we will switch to an entirely electric fleet”, Massey explains. “Ranges are improving significantly with each new generation of vehicles and are currently sufficient for most business needs. We also support the initiatives of The Climate Group EV100 to ensure that necessary investment is made in electric vehicle technology and infrastructure, in response to market demand.”

At a Dassault Systèmes organised sustainability event, Innovate UK interim executive chair Ian Campbell noted how far the UK, for example, has come in developing an infrastructure for electric vehicles by stating there are now more charging stations than petrol stations. Another way to deal with supply chain inefficiencies could be leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to “make intelligent decisions and recommendations for optimal actions”. Quelch explains this is particularly pertinent for transportation as AI can help “accurately predict and manage transportation capacity at a highly granular level”.

Virtualise clinical trials

More environmentally friendly and efficient transport of medicines also makes clinical trials themselves more sustainable. However, carbon emissions related to clinical trials also arise from the energy usage at the study site and the travel required to attend the trial, which often involves cars and aeroplanes.

This is particularly concerning given that nine in clinical studies fail so a lot of those emissions, as well as the drugs themselves, ended up having almost no purpose. There has begun to be a shift towards virtualised clinical trials to make trials both more sustainable and more financially viable; Maini explains Medidata is leading the way with its ADAPTABLE aspirin trial.

This study aimed to enrol 15,000 patients over three years; the participants engaged and input information at each stage of the trial through internet-connected devices. The entire trial was virtual with no study sites set up. Medidata estimates that they saved patients and pharma companies both time and money, which also benefitted the environment; for instance, $1,009,200 was saved in driving costs in the aspirin trial.

Looking further to the future, there may be even less need for clinical trials if Dassault Systèmes can extend its ‘Living Heart’ project, which virtualises a model of an individual patient’s heart, to create a so-called virtual twin. “If you had a copy of yourself in the virtual world, you could run a model of how a medicine is going to affect you,” Coxon explains. “One of the biggest costs in getting drugs to market is the clinical trials, so if you can reduce the amount of trials, then there is a huge potential to reduce waste and your carbon footprint.”