Technology May Help Curb The Parallel Counterfeit Drug Market, Save Lives
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29 September 2011
By , chandu gopalakrishnan
bangalore , India
Use the Cloud to Spot Fake Drugs
You are at your pharmacist, asking for prescription pills. As he delivers the strip, you scratch on it to reveal a code and text it from your mobile phone to a given number. Pat comes a message that says whether the drug is counterfeit. Welcome to the world of cloud computing, whose latest use is to check the menace of counterfeit drugs.
“This technology not only provides commercial benefits to clients, but also helps to save lives,” said Prith Banerjee, senior vice–president (research) and director of HP Labs.
HP started pitching the service to pharmaceutical companies in August. Once a firm registers its products, its drug packs will have the code, instructions and the number to which the SMS should be sent. Counterfeit drugs, contrary to what the name suggests, are not fake, but have disproportionate chemical ingredients which might trigger serious side–effects in patients.
For a country like India, which is the world’s leading maker of generic medicines, anti–counterfeit drug measures are crucial. A report by the Organisation for Economic Co–operation and Development (OECD) says that we are also the world’s largest exporter of counterfeit medicines. TS Jaishankar, chairman of the Confederation of Indian Pharmaceutical Industry (CIPI), said counterfeit drugs seep into the market mostly through retailers. “All these would be sold without a bill, as the origin of the medicine and the chain of supply can be traced once the medicine is billed,” he said. “Companies like Glaxo had to bring in holograms when they were targeted by fakes.”
Laws to prohibit sale of counterfeit drugs have failed to curb the export of counterfeit drugs. The Director General of Foreign Trade had recently announced that all pharmaceutical exports should implement anti–counterfeit measures.
“Trouble is that the knowhow to make medicines is easily available these days,” said Jaishankar, who is also the MD of Quest Life Sciences, Chennai. “Once, an employee stole a pack of our labels and equipment and started minting out fake medicines in collusion with a chemist. Our medical representative was alerted by the disproportionate stock in the area and we could stop it.” It is estimated that about 700,000 people a year are affected by counterfeit drugs, says the OECD report.
Tagging that number to India’s share in the fake drug market proves that countermeasures such as holograms, differentiated packing and barcoding have failed.
A high–tech method such as radio frequency identification, where a chip is placed in the packet to verify its authenticity, is too costly. This is where the Global Authentication Service finds its place. What makes the system click is that it works from the grassroots. Put simply, the system works in these phases. The pharmaceutical company registers its drug in the cloud database set up by HP, for which it receives a code. The secret code is affixed on a scratch pad in the drug packet. The user scratches to reveal the number, sends an SMS to the number given on the packet or strip. If the number matches the one in the database, it reverts back to the user. “Any move to counter the menace is welcome, but a rise in cost would be a concern as drug prices in the country are regulated (by the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority),” said Confederation of Indian Pharmaceutical Industry’s Jaishankar.
HP says the rise in cost, if any, would be marginal. “It would depend a lot on the volumes of code that a pharmaceutical company would buy,” said Appadurai A, country manager, Indigo & Inkjet Solutions, HP India. “Certainly, there will be a minor cost increase on the packaging of the product.”
The system also allows pharmaceutical companies to monitor the movement of products through their global supply chains with a much greater accuracy. This helps protect consumers against dangerous or ineffective drugs and enables pharmaceutical companies to protect their revenue and IP.
The project’s impact would be visible once pharma companies lap it up.
“Built on the cloud infrastructure, it is completely scalable. Rollouts are the choice of the pharmaceutical brand owners,” said Appadurai. A possible slip–up could be when an insider tags the code to counterfeit stocks from within. For other loopholes, we have to wait till the system is adopted on a mass scale.
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