Busting Drug Bootleggers Goes High-Tech in India

By Ariel Nagi 10/13/11
Many Indian consumers will be priced out of the new high-tech safety. photo via

In poor countries, up to 25% of all drugs are counterfeit, according to the World Health Organization. These often-ineffective, sometimes-toxic medicines make up a nearly $200 million industry worldwide. The black market in fake anti-malarial drugs alone kills 100,000 Africans a year. Counterfeit knockoffs have become a big headache for India, where contentious patent laws have enabled the fast development of the world's largest industry in generic prescription drugs—and where overwhelmed quality-control enforcement has, in turn, enabled the fast development of the world's second-largest black market in fake drugs (China is the world's no. 1 maker of counterfeit goods.) With its generics industry's reputation at stake, the Indian government launched an anti-counterfeit campaign, regularly raiding suspect manufacturers, but the lab tests necessary to confirm even a single fake drug are slow and expensive. Now the Indian Ministry of Health is initiating what it hopes is a far more efficient strategy—targeting the drug packaging—by requiring drugmakers to invest in advanced security technology to improve counterfeit detection, including 2D barcodes, scratch-off labels and printed quick response (QR) codes that allow any consumer with a camera phone and web access to scan the code and link to the manufacturer’s website to authenticate the drug. Starting this month, all pharmaceutical exporters must print barcodes on the outer-most packaging. A secondary-level track-and-trace system, mandatory next year, will offer additional package identification. Of course, the new approach has its drawbacks: not every consumer in India (to say nothing of Africa) has a sleek new iPhone with which to snap and scan.  Paul Lalvani, dean of Empower School of Health, says that Indian drugmakers “impact the lives of over six million people around the world who are on anti-HIV drugs and 200 million people on anti-malarials. So it's important for India to reassure consumers worldwide of the safety and credibility of drugs.” Meantime, Chinese drug-safety officials sit back and watch the U.S. Food and Drug Agency's first-ever overseas branch attempt to penetrate China's vast web of unregulated, corrupt supply chain for drugs.

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