For drug vials such as those used to carry doses of the various COVID-19 vaccines being distributed globally, the journey from manufacturing facility to dosing point is complex and carefully controlled at every step. High-quality, fit-for-purpose packaging is critical to ensure that medicines remain safe, sterile and fully traceable throughout the supply chain.
Ensuring the integrity of the cold chain
“The role of pharmaceutical packaging is to protect against all adverse external influences that can alter the properties of the product inside. Paperboard is most often used as secondary packaging for COVID-19 vaccines, to box up the vials that are the primary packaging,” explains Markku Leskelä, VP, Research and Product Development at Metsä Board. “As well as protecting against physical damage during transportation, the paperboard packaging contains vital information such as product ingredients, batch numbers and dosage guidelines as well as tamper-evident and other safety features,” he continues.
COVID-19 and other vaccines are typically stored and transported in extremely cold conditions, which can be as low as -70 degrees Celsius, before being thawed out ready for administration. The secondary paperboard packaging must be able to withstand these temperature extremes and protect the vials throughout this process.
“When a converter is producing packages for cold-chain transportation they have to be 100% certain that the materials they are using are appropriate. This is where Metsä Board and our in-depth testing and simulations capabilities – combined with our deep expertise as a leading paperboard producer – are extremely valuable for the pharma industry,” says Pekka Suokas, R&D Manager at Metsä Board.
“Paperboard for pharma packaging needs to retain its specified thickness, mechanical strength and water absorption properties regardless of the conditions it faces, and it must not affect the primary packaging in any way. Any changes in dimensions could cause curling or bulging, which could pose a risk to the integrity of the packaging and therefore the safety of the product inside. We are able to test paperboard and packaging samples in extremely cold and extremely humid conditions and develop packaging strength simulations to demonstrate how a package will perform in the real world,” he continues.
Taking paperboard testing to the extreme
At its Excellence Centre in Äänekoski, central Finland, Metsä Board has the capabilities to test the performance of paperboard and pharmaceutical packaging samples across a wide temperature and humidity range. The conditions can be varied according to the specific needs of each individual case, and it is also possible to programme different cyclic temperature and humidity changes to mimic the real-life conditions faced by vaccines as they travel along the supply chain. These capabilities have played an extremely important role in helping manufacturers to get their COVID vaccines to where they need to be as quickly as possible.
“With the help of a local partner we can test packaging samples down to -70 degrees Celsius and combine transportation tests with board conditioning tests,” says Leskelä. “This kind of thorough research provides our customers with the confidence that the paperboard they want to use is appropriate for the application in question. And if the results show that it is not, we can recommend an alternative.”
Metsä Board’s simulation capabilities include finite element (FEM) simulation, where it is possible to take a 3D design drawing or measure the dimensions of an existing package sample and use this structural data together with the strength data of the paperboard to calculate the strength of a complete packaging design. “With powerful computers and skilled personnel at our disposal, we can perform this kind of simulation within a single day to help speed up the process of getting a critical drug to market,” Leskelä highlights.
Lightening the load on the planet
Another big advantage of the Metsä Board Excellence Centre and the company’s advanced testing capabilities and expertise is the ability to recommend lighter board grades with a smaller carbon footprint.
“By analysing the properties of pharmaceutical packaging samples we can recommend lighter-grammage Metsä Board grades that will perform equally well while helping to cut the carbon footprint of the packaging,” Leskelä explains. “We produce 1.3 million tons of board every year, and if all of that were used to produce pharmaceutical packages weighing seven grammes each, it would be enough to make 430 million packages a day. Cutting the paperboard weight by just 1% would save the amount of natural resources needed to produce 4.3 million packages.”