The battle against counterfeit drugs is one that is of high stake for the pharmaceutical industry. However, the fight against counterfeit drugs is a complex and daunting challenge. It not only involves huge losses for pharmaceutical companies but also poses dangers to those taking counterfeit drugs.
The gravity of the situation can be understood by the fact that approximately 10% of the world’s pharmaceutical products could be counterfeit, as per the estimate of the World Health Organisation (WHO). This percentage could be much higher, about 30%, for developing countries, according to WHO. Further, WHO estimates that approximately 1 million people die every year due to the intake of counterfeit medicines, which is quite alarming.
The proliferation of counterfeit drugs can be attributed to a large extent to the complexity of the pharma supply chains with additional touch points, which makes it possible for counterfeit drugs to infiltrate supply chain operations.
Many times, counterfeit drugs are manufactured in multiple locations. For example, the chemical synthesis of products may take place in one country, while the addition of filler can be carried out in another country. This makes it increasingly difficult to track counterfeit medicines in the supply chain.
Moreover, counterfeiters are adopting sophisticated technology for manufacturing and packaging their products, which makes it all the more difficult to identify such products. However, the pharmaceutical industry is also adopting sophisticated technologies to identify, secure, and track products, and anti-counterfeit packaging is playing a crucial role in it.
Some of the innovative anti-counterfeit packaging employed by the pharmaceutical industry are, holograms, RFID, 2D codes, micro-text and microscopic tagging, advanced barcodes, serialization, embedded images, digital watermarks, laser codes, and invisible printing.
Holograms is one of the most widely used methods, as these can be identified easily. This method can be made more effective with nano-text and hidden images, which can be added to increase security features of holographic images. Such holographic images are almost impossible to replicate by employing traditional printing methods.
Colour-shift inks are used widely for anti-counterfeit packaging. Here, different colour combinations are used in a way that specific colours can be detected when viewed from different angles. Covert technologies like microtext and microscopic tagging are very effective, as they are invisible and require special detection devices to identify. For example, in UV micro-text print, the text characters used are invisible to the naked eye.
Another latest technology to be explored by the pharmaceutical companies is RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Devices) with tags. Pharma giants like Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline have already introduced RFID tags on the packaging of some of its drugs. The development of 2D barcodes has also helped companies to tackle the problem of counterfeit products. Thousands of characters and scanning techniques can be accommodated by 2D barcodes.
Tackling counterfeit products requires a multi-pronged approach, in which anti-counterfeit packaging plays an important role. To provide a higher level of security, many companies are combining the overt (e.g., holograms, security graphs, colour-shift inks) and covert technologies (micro-text and microscopic tagging, laser codes, digital watermarks, embedded images). Security design tapes and security tear tapes are examples of combining these two technologies to provide better anti-counterfeit packaging.
In the future, we can expect more robust and counterfeit-proof packaging for pharmaceutical products. Nanotechnology is one such technology that has huge potential for improving the quality of pharmaceutical packaging. Forensic anti-counterfeit packaging is another emerging technology. With growing investment in anti-counterfeit packaging technologies, we can expect to see more innovative packaging techniques in the coming days.