A United Nations-backed meeting to combat the multi-billion-dollar market for counterfeit medicines today sought to harness technology in the arsenal of weapons used to crack down on the products, which can promote drug resistant strains of disease, worsen medical conditions and kill patients.
“In the case of anti-counterfeiting, the challenges we face are finding technologies that cannot themselves be counterfeited and transferring them to resource poor settings at an affordable cost,” UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General for Health Technology and Pharmaceuticals Howard Zucker said.
“While technology alone cannot solve the problem, some of these solutions could greatly enhance the ability to detect and deter the distribution of counterfeit medicines,” he added of the measures, ranging from simple, cheap but relatively easily copied tools like holograms to the more complex and expensive, such as invisible printing and digital watermarks.
Dr. Zucker is chairman of the Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT) set up by WHO and some 20 partners established last year. Today’s meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, brings together more than 20 technology companies with IMPACT’s Working Group on Technology to assess measures to improve the global prevention, tracking and detection of counterfeit medicines.
Counterfeit medicines are on the rise in most countries but are particularly widespread and dangerous in developing regions. IMPACT's most recent figures estimate their sales at 1 per cent in developed countries to more than 10 per cent in developing nations. But in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America more than 30 per cent of the medicines on sale can be counterfeit, while in some former Soviet republics, they make up more than 20 per cent of the market.
“Technology can help to contain counterfeiting, but it is not a magic bullet that will stop this problem on its own,” Harvey Bale, Director General of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations and Chair of the IMPACT Technology Working Group, said.
“In looking at these technologies, we will need to assess carefully their applicability in developing countries and their potential synergy with other approaches to stop this criminal activity which can and does result in the deaths of patients.”
Forensic technology, essentially chemical or biological tags built into medicines packaging, are even more secure against copying but significantly more costly and provide no visible reassurance to customers. Serialization or track/trace systems, using technologies such as bar codes and radio frequency identification help provide authentication by allowing a medicine to be tracked through the supply chain. These require an expensive technical infrastructure and are not completely immune to “hacking.”
These technologies cannot by themselves stop counterfeiting. Computer and technological illiteracy, lack of infrastructure and cost may limit the ability of technology to deliver solutions, especially in the poorer parts of the world where the threat posed by counterfeiting is greatest.
“Technology needs to be combined with other measures including tough legislation and regulations against counterfeiting, rigorous enforcement, stiffer penalties, and diligent surveillance on the part of the authorities and healthcare providers,” Valerio Reggi, coordinator of the IMPACT secretariat at WHO, said. “IMPACT recognizes this and has complementary working groups looking at how each of these areas can be strengthened and made to work together in harmony.”