RFID no cure-all for counterfeit drugs
Scott Olson/Getty The scourge of counterfeit drugs in the global marketplace is nothing new. As Passport noted in February, the World Health Organization estimates that a quarter of all drug packets on the streets of developing countries are fake. Such medicines are responsible for the deaths of 300,000 people each year in China alone (pdf). ...
The scourge of counterfeit drugs in the global marketplace is nothing new. As Passport noted in February, the World Health Organization estimates that a quarter of all drug packets on the streets of developing countries are fake. Such medicines are responsible for the deaths of 300,000 people each year in China alone (pdf).
But now there’s even more bad news. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)—called the “most promising technology for electronic track and trace across the drug supply chain” by the Food and Drug Administration—may not be so promising after all.
CSO, a publication dealing with private security issues, recently published a piece dispelling the five big myths surround RFID technology and its ability to prevent and mitigate drug counterfeiting operations. Given that big pharma companies including GlaxoSmithKline, Purdue Pharma and Pfizer have adopted RFID for a number of their products, this is important news. A quick summary:
– Myth 1: RFID tags are anti-counterfeiting devices. Why not? Their primary function is as an inventory tracking device—not a security one. They are simply a “record of a drug’s journey through the supply chain.”
– Myth 2: RFID technology is necessary to track the movement of legitimate drugs. Why not? The “two-way communication” part of RFID tracking, which is the most crucial component of protecting distribution, is still unreliable. This means that often-unreliable 2-D barcodes are often as the principal means of identifying the drugs instead.
– Myth 3: RFID technology can be used to mark pills, tablets and elixirs themselves. Why not? Only the packaging gets marked, not the drugs themselves. And many drugs are repackaged on their journey from producer to market, creating easily exploitable loopholes for the savvy counterfeiter. As the Chief Security Officer of Novartis explains, “We have had experience with counterfeit product in genuine packaging, and genuine product in counterfeit packaging…. The packaging isn’t what’s important.”
– Myth 4: RFID technology will let consumers verify that they have purchased legitimate products. Why not? The tension between privacy and security is still too strong. So far, it seems as if the RFID tags are disabled before they reach the hands of consumers.
– Myth 5: The pharmaceutical industry is this close to widespread RFID adoption. Why not? It’s costly to switch to a new system—especially one whose benefits are still unclear.
RFID may still offer some hope for effectively monitoring drug supply and distribution, but it’s not a panacea for addressing counterfeiting by any means. Tackling fake drugs will require greater international cooperation and information exchange between supply channels, and better efforts to crack down on counterfeiters by policing agencies. Until then, parents will continue to face the risk of unwittingly poisoning their own children.
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