Medicines are sacred instruments created by practicing GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) and are expected to combat diseases and save patient lives. The standards of medicines are guaranteed by approved quality control inspectors after conducting quality control tests from the samples scientifically drawn from the batch of finished products. But, there is one more market where no GMP is practiced, no quality controls happen and there are no connections with regulations. The representatives of this market never care about the outcomes of their actions and how it affects public health and pharma companies. They just keep on producing. You have guessed it right. I am talking about the counterfeit medicine market. The estimates on the size of the global counterfeit drug market range from $75 to $200 billion and can make up half of all the drugs sold in some low-income countries¹. Some unscrupulous people are engaged in the manufacturing of counterfeit medicines, which are imitations of genuine medicines, to earn quick money by deceiving the weaknesses in systems. But, there is a dire need to eradicate this evil. Regulatory authorities and pharma companies are fighting counterfeiters by adopting different modes and technologies to eliminate the counterfeit medicines entirely from the market.
Channels through which the counterfeit medicines reach patients
The counterfeit medicines enter the market at various levels. Many times they creep in via the legitimate supply chain in a scandalous manner due to inadequate regulation and vigilance. From the point of manufacturers, clearing and forwarding agents, wholesalers and retail dispensers, the entire supply chain is vulnerable for entry of counterfeit medicines or there are ample opportunities to push the counterfeit medicines into the market. They also reach the patient through mushroomed, unregulated internet pharmacies in developed countries.
Pfizer as an example
Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company present in more than hundred countries, started fighting against counterfeiters by launching many anti-counterfeit campaigns to counteract their moves. For example, it has a global security system with staff from the FBI and US customs and the team is effectively involved in tracking counterfeit medicines. Pfizer brands such as Lipitor, Diflucan, Viagra, Dilantin, Norvasc, Feldene, Zoloft, Ponstan, Celebrex, Vibramycin, Aricept, Zithromax, Xanax, Centrum etc. were counterfeited. Surprisingly, Pfizer’s legitimate products have their imitations in more than 100 countries which are not at all bio-equivalents of Pfizer medicines.
Pfizer initiatives to counteract the counterfeiters
Pfizer Global Security (GS)
The Pfizer Global Security system is very stringent in attacking the counterfeiters. Often they raid and make test purchases to estimate the authenticity of drugs. They have been very instrumental in battling against counterfeiters. From 2004 to the 2014, they eradicated more than 168.4 million doses of counterfeit Pfizer medicines, more than 96.3 million finished doses and API adequate to produce 72.1 million doses of the fake medicines². The above stats depict that the company on one hand is deterring the counterfeiters and on another hand is keeping the patients away from the dangerous fake medicines. It is the right time for other companies to follow in the footsteps of Pfizer and come up similar security systems.
The company uses Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags to track medicines and to ensure the medicines are not fake and can be used safely. There is a unique Electronic Product Code (EPC) on the product packaging and Pfizer is the first company to adopt this type of technology to tackle counterfeiters. Many pharmaceutical companies have started using this technology.
Pfizer also acts against counterfeiters with the Patient Authentication for Safety via SMS (PASS) system in Hong Kong and Malaysia. This PASS system checks the medicine instantly via a single text message of the verification code mentioned on the product, which is tough to duplicate.
Combined initiatives with authorities, local communities and other pharma companies
Pfizer is working in conjunction with various communities and regulatory authorities to tackle counterfeiting. It has developed strong relations with drug supply chains, pharma communities and law enforcement agencies such as the FDA (USA), MHRA (United Kingdom), TGA (Australia) and so on. Pfizer also works with pharma companies like Eli lilly, Sanofi etc. Pfizer believes there is no competition among pharma companies when fighting counterfeiters.
Big screen experiment
The reference here is to the advertisement filmed by Pfizer to create awareness in UK on illegal prescription medicines purchased through online pharmacies. In developed countries, the purchase of medicines from the online pharmacies has drastically increased as patients are attracted with discounts and other promotions. But, patients do not know if the online pharmacy has the regulatory compliance to sell the medicines. Pfizer created awareness on fake drugs and their rapid effects with the advertisement. It screened on more than 600 big screens in UK.
OLP Disruption Program in collaboration with Microsoft
Pfizer launched this critical internet program to trace the illegal online pharmacies selling counterfeit medicines. The program is an outcome of two giants – one in the health sector and the other in the software arena. This program compelled many illegal online pharmacies to shut down permanently. Social media is also one of the major means used by Pfizer to create awareness and counteract the counterfeiters.
To conclude, counterfeiting is a global problem which requires worldwide collaborative efforts to eradicate. Deterring counterfeiting not only makes life difficult for counterfeiters, but also brings back product sales and profits for pharma companies. More importantly, public health becomes safer. It is important to eliminate the counterfeit market before it erodes the legitimate medicine market.