Smart anti-counterfeiting: it is all in the system’s design

How can I be sure the medicine I take is genuine?

Counterfeit medicines are a global problem, with trade in the billions of dollars. The World Health Organization estimates 8-10% of all drugs supplied globally are counterfeit.
Counterfeits are a clear and present danger to human health. No country is immune from the risk. Fake medicines are hazardous, with documented toxicity, instability and ineffectiveness but few people are experts in pill authentication (even pharmacists get fooled). Counterfeit drugs are easier to make and fake than money. But there is little patients can do but rely on assurances by others that drugs are genuine. That may not be good enough.

The health and medicines regulators had for years believed there wasn’t a problem because there are few cases from their perspective. But today we know better and there have been efforts to address regulatory denial.

Counterfeit medicines are infiltrated into the supply and distribution of legitimate medicines by rogue, criminal organizations and individuals, who specifically target the weaknesses in supply chains, as well as human weakness (bribes and kickbacks) and gaps in healthcare payment systems.

Counterfeiting had originally been viewed as a patent issue legal advisors took a purely legalistic interpretation. It was not until the problem of counterfeiting was presented as a risk to human health and people’s lives that the dead end logic of patent protection was dropped. But why did the lawyers fail understand the context in which the problem existed? New legislation is always being introduced, such as the EU’s Falsified Medicines Directive, but the criminals will find a way to game this, even though this directive was apparently ‘gamed’ by developers using the French problem with the drug Mediator. However, gaming policy for developmental purposes also needs people to think like a criminal.

Once a medicine has been factory sealed by the pharmaceutical manufacturer, there is no assurance that it will reach the patient unopened; a pharmacist and doctor can open it, and packages that cross borders are opened for repackaging and labelling. Indeed, there are companies with the licensed authority to repackage factory-sealed medicines with new labels in new languages. Unscrupulous distributors can conceal the illegal substitution of counterfeits within these apparently highly regulated systems. Many countries are net importers of medicines as they lack sufficient domestic manufacturing capacity or the medicine is complex and is manufactured in only a few places. This makes these countries vulnerable to supply chain interference.
While international trade in medicines trade has often focused on internet pharmacies, the real problem is that the online mail-order environment is a counterfeit drug delivery system into every home on the planet.

Healthcare systems themselves must address perverse incentives that drive criminal behaviour; keep in mind that criminals exploit weaknesses in supply chains, laws and regulations, and respond to unmet demand for a product (from toasters to cars, there are illegal markets everywhere and not just for drugs) resting on common incentives. A major driver for criminals is the existence of cash markets for their products (they tend not to take cheques), and one of the largest cash markets is people without adequate health insurance cover and reimbursement systems that do not cover the full cost of medicines, or fail to insulate patients from high drug costs. In addition, as information on medicines can now be widely salient through internet social media, a country failing to license a medicine that some people would value opens a door to counterfeiters to exploit a patient demand for that medicine.

What Cognology says.

Catching crooks with counterfeit drugs is also a problem of finding them. Using advanced intelligent technologies (cognologies as in the name of this blog) means that surveillance can be smarter and less distracted by false signals.

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