Catching the Counterfeiters: Efforts to Combat Global Drug Counterfeiting Intensify

Pharma IQ

Despite measures intended to stem the tide of counterfeit medicines entering the market, figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime suggest that smugglers are capable of making €75 billion (£64 billion) from the sale of counterfeit medicines.

"With counterfeiters becoming smarter and more sophisticated than ever before, staying ahead of them can be challenging," said Arran Oakes, Conference Director of Pharmaceutical Anti-Counterfeiting, in a recent Pharma IQ interview.

"The counterfeiting of pharmaceuticals is a problem that continues to grow... At the end of this year, the EU Commission will announce changes to EU anti-counterfeiting legislation and the Delegated Act; how will your company integrate these changes into your anti-counterfeiting strategy?," said Oakes.

Counterfeiting drugs cause global concern 

Anti-counterfeiting is a truly global issue, a recent example of an incident of counterfeit drugs hitting the market involves batches of 13 different anti-malarial drugs being discovered in Ghana through a medicines quality measuring programme.

The same programme just last year uncovered counterfeit versions of the widely used Novartis Coartem anti-malarial drug in circulation, which was only found when a member of public suspected the product he purchased was a fake and alerted the authorities.

Aside from the potentially devastating effects that counterfeit drugs can have on public health, they can also cause significant damage to the pharmaceutical company's reputation.

It is for these reasons that it is imperative companies take steps to protect their brand and prevent counterfeit medicines hitting the market.

Internet threats

The internet presents one of the largest threats for companies looking to combat counterfeit medicines.

This was the result of a recent study by Cambridge Consultants, which highlighted that better education and protection measures are needed as "the unregulated growth of internet pharmacies will only contribute to this problem".

A recent case in Canada highlighted how the sale of counterfeit drugs over the internet could erode the reputation of brands.

Health Canada named three websites selling products referencing brand names that resembled drugs like those for sale in Canada, which have not been approved for distribution in the country.

Rainuka Gupta, group manager of medical technologies at Cambridge Consultants, said:  "Pharmaceutical companies risk losing credibility and regulatory bodies risk losing control with the spread of these counterfeit medicines."

The three main technologies currently being used to combat counterfeiting were said to be anti-tamper packaging, serialisation and authentication, but the key to enhancing these efforts was said to be a collaboration between stakeholders. This partnership with manufacturers, regulatory authorities and the supply chain is particularly important due to the global nature of the problem.

Technological improvements in this area must also tie in with business processes to form an "integrated solution that continuously evolves".

The World Health Organisation claimed that 50 percent of medicines bought online, where the supplier has concealed their address are fakes.

Using technology to combat counterfeiting

It's clear that there is no single approach that the industry and regulators believe will combat the problem of counterfeit medicines.

RFID is one of the technologies being used to verify the authenticity of medicines. A special report in Pharma Pro highlighted that the promise for the technology is "undeniable", but it will not provide a complete solution.

Passive tags are most likely to be used by the pharmaceutical industry, but work is now being undertaken on active tags which will transmit a signal periodically to allow for better detection throughout the supply chain.

"Understanding what the supply chain needs is one key element in selecting the appropriate tag: another is recognising the risks of implementation," the report stated, highlighting that such a system must be accompanied by other controls.

The Nigerian National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control and pharma company Biofemare also trialling a mobile verification system to reduce incidences of counterfeit versions of its Glucophage diabetic drug being distributed.

Consumers are required to text a 12-digit code from their pack, and will then receive a reply indicating if the product is fake or genuine.

Femi Soremekun, the managing director of Biofem Pharmaceuticals, said so far consumers are responding well to the pilot and the networks being used are proving 97.8 percent reliable, reported.