The pharmaceutical industry is increasingly using radio frequency identification tags to control prescription distribution, a meeting of the BCS South Wales branch heard earlier this month.
Spam offering cut-price Viagra is indicative of the growing incidence of counterfeit drugs getting in to the supply chain. And RFID technology is being used to help ensure that only genuine prescribed drugs are dispensed and patient safety is protected.
In the US, where counterfeit drugs are a major problem, the drug packet is given a two-dimensional barcode and an RFID tag, and frequently a single linear barcode as well. Each pack has a number which is recorded on the manufacturer's database.
As the product travels along the supply chain, the tag is updated at each stage of its logistic trail. At the point of sale the pharmacist has a reader to check back to the manufacturer's database to verify the pack's origin.
If two identical codes are flagged up, the manufacturer's database will sound an alarm. This system will almost certainly be used in the UK in future.
Manufacturers invest a sizeable amount in a product's research and development, and they aim to recoup their investment by selling it under a brand name. However, a drug of identical formulation may be manufactured by the same pharmaceutical company on the same production lines and given a different brand for sale into another market.
Under EU legislation, products are freely sold in an open market, and by branding a company can argue that they are not breaching EU pricing regulations. Rival drugs of identical formulation are imported and dispensed in place of the branded drugs (called parallel imports).
Not all fakes are harmful or ineffective. High profit margins encourage a few counterfeit manufacturers to produce to higher standards than the genuine branded products.
By using RFID tagging with the electronic product code (EPC), pharmaceutical companies have the ability to eliminate the alternatives and control the market, not only recovering their costs, but also increasing their profitability.
Tagging may offer patient protection, but there is a down side. If there was just one pan-European price for a generic product with a single EPC, parallel imports would diminish and the opportunity for low-cost alternatives would be limited. Ultimately, it would be poorer nations/patients who would suffer most.