There can be few more critical aspects of supply chain management than ensuring the integrity of pharmaceutical products supplied to a patient. Counterfeit medications are a growing problem, highlighted by recent reports that 70,000 packets of counterfeit medication are feared to be circulating within the NHS. However, this issue of the proliferation of counterfeit drugs is of global concern.
According to the World Health Organisation: “Of the one million deaths that occur from malaria annually, as many as 200,000 would be avoidable if the medicines available were effective, of good quality and used correctly.
“A study conducted in South-East Asia in 2001 revealed that 38 per cent of 104 anti-malarial drugs on sale in pharmacies did not contain any active ingredients and had resulted in a number of preventable deaths.”
However, this human tragedy could be avoided by tackling the problem of counterfeit drugs using existing technology, widely available and very evident on our supermarket shelves. Barcodes and RFID are highly effective authentication tools, which enable products to be verified, the manufacturer identified and batch number and expiry date checked, along the entire length of the supply chain.
With the growing use of the internet as a means of buying medicines and the advances in bio-tech medicines where drugs are tailored to an individual patient or gene type, pharmaceutical manufacturers are going to have to move quickly to implement systems that not only guarantee the integrity of the product, but also ensure that the right product reaches the correct patient.
There is encouraging news. Last month, a pharmaceutical traceability pilot was undertaken by the supply chain data standards organisation, GS1. Part funded by the EU, 15 different types of drugs were tracked using standard bar codes and radio frequency identification. The pilot successfully traced drugs from manufacturing plants in Ireland and The Netherlands to their point of use in the pharmacy department of Barts and The London NHS Trust.
Of course, this system requires pharmaceutical manufacturers to partake in a globally recognised unique identification system. And I suspect that might be the difficult bit. However, the longer this issue remains unresolved the more lives will be lost.