The production sites of Boehringer Ingelheim worldwide were put to difficult tests at the beginning of 2020. During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sites ensured that patients continued to receive vital medicines. They only achieved this because of their particularly close collaboration.
In Fornovo, Italy, most of public life came to a standstill in early March 2020. The Lombardy, where Fornovo is also located, had been hit especially hard by COVID-19. Nearly half of the 34,000 Italians who died from COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic came from that region. Local authorities put restrictions on daily life. Curfews and bans on meeting with others were implemented.
In the Bidachem factory buildings of Boehringer Ingelheim in Fornovo, however, there was a flurry of activity. After all, production operations had to go on. Among other medications, Bidachem manufactures active ingredients for cardiovascular and diabetes medicines that had to be ready on time for patients all over the world.
Doctors urgently required medicines to somehow treat the serious accompanying illnesses that often occur with a COVID-19 infection. Moreover, large quantities of medicines were being stockpiled worldwide. In short, the Fornovo plant had to produce at top speed. And all this during such dramatic weeks. At times, 30 percent of the plant’s more than 200 employees had to go into quarantine. They also had to cope with a new shift system, with night and weekend shifts, and with strict social distancing rules. No one was allowed to get closer than two meters. “Those were difficult weeks,” site manager Dr. Maurizio Sartorato recalls. Despite all adversities, there were no production delays or stoppages. Sartorato is convinced that “that was only possible because our sites supported each other.”
The Ingelheim and Fornovo production sites and the laboratory site in Shanghai have long been in close contact with one another. The COVID-19 pandemic brought them even closer together. “We regularly talked things over with our colleagues in China and Germany,” says Sartorato. Every day, employees of the three sites met in video conferences for the planning.
“For instance, our colleagues in Ingelheim assisted us with the quality control process for our analysis patterns,” he remarks. “All we had to do was call Ingelheim, and we knew our colleagues would support us.”
Dr. Bernhard Rausch, who is responsible for chemical production in Ingelheim, likewise has vivid memories of the first COVID-19 wave, when aircraft were grounded and logistics chains collapsed in many places. “In early April 2020, we organized truck shipments. We were thus able to ensure seamless production of various medicines and to get important substances over the Brenner Pass to Italy,” Rausch recalls.
At the same time, colleagues in the supply chain management, purchasing, and logistics departments sought to reroute suppliers’ products to Ingelheim instead of Italy. Meanwhile, Boehringer Ingelheim’s Center of Chemistry in Shanghai safeguarded the integrity of international supply chains and the delivery of basic chemicals. “Thanks to our colleagues in China, there were no bad surprises in terms of the supply process,” says Rausch.
By working together, the three sites achieved more than just seamless production: Since China was affected first, then Italy, and Germany a bit later, they were able to learn from and help each other. Dr. Jinsong Yang, Head of the Center of Chemistry in Shanghai, sent his team to work from home for a week in early February before bringing them back to their workplaces subject to stringent safety measures. “We introduced a new shift system to reduce the number of people working together and to make it easier for them to keep out of each other’s way,” says Yang. Their European counterparts in Ingelheim and Fornovo subsequently adopted Shanghai’s system
While China was struggling with a growing number of COVID-19 cases in January 2020, the situation was still manageable in Europe. Ingelheim and Fornovo sent face masks to China, where hardly any protective equipment was available. Fornovo's manager Sartorato already suspected what he might be faced with so he ordered several thousand masks at the start of the year – and had enough on hand once they were unobtainable in Italy. This foresight may ultimately have saved lives: “We were able to protect our employees at all times,” he says. The Shanghai site had already demonstrated how to cope with the crisis: Employees in Italy and Germany oriented themselves to the hygiene measures of their Chinese colleagues. “We learned from our colleagues how to ensure optimal safety at our plants,” says Rausch.
Everyone in China, Germany, and Italy was forced to drastically change their routines. “The decision to be overprotective might have created some difficulties in the initial phase, but it proved successful, allowing us to continue producing without interruption,” Sartorato notes. But they managed to do so together, and no one was infected at work. Pragmatism, team spirit, and readiness to help: Employees at the three sites stuck close together. “That is an important reason why we handled the situation so well and were able to safeguard the supply of vital medicines for our patients,” concludes Rausch.