Blockchain: A Game Changer For Safe Medicines

‘Your medicine box may have fake drugs’ was the March 18, 2018 headline of a popular pan Indian news daily. Just the year before, the 2017 report of the World Health Organization (WHO), also flagged that around 10.5 percent of all medicines in low-and middle-income countries, including India are substandard or fake. Even prior to this, another news headline of February 15, 2016 highlighted: ‘1 In 7 Indian Drugs Revealed As Substandard.’ These reports paint a scary situation for consumers of medicine in India, especially when the same incidence is just around one percent in the high-income countries of the world. Nevertheless, getting into a protracted discussion to prove the veracity of this issue, may not yield much, either. Some may even term these as efforts to ‘sensationalizing’ the situation.

That said, the good news is, the Government Think Tank Niti Aayog and also the Drug Technical Advisory Board (DTAB) of India,are reportedly contemplating to combat this menace with cutting-edge technology. In this article, I shall dwell on this threat, starting with its profound impact, not just on human health, but also on the economic and the socioeconomic space of India.

Why is it so important?

The most obvious fallout of this hazard is of course borne by the consuming patient.  The other two critical impact areas has also been well captured by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its 2017 study, titled ‘A study on the public health and socioeconomic impact of substandard and falsified medical products’. I am summarizing those 3 key impact areas hereunder:

A. Health impact: 

  • Adverse effects (for example, toxicity or lack of efficacy) from incorrect active ingredients
  • Failure to cure or prevent future disease, increasing mortality, morbidity and the prevalence of disease
  • Progression of antimicrobial resistance and drug-resistant infections, loss of confidence in health care professionals, health programs and health systems

B. Economic impact:

  • Increased out-of-pocket and health system spending on health care
  • Economic loss for patients, their families, health systems and manufacturers (and other actors in the supply chain) of quality medical products
  • Waste of human effort and financial outlay across the health system, further straining resources, staff and infrastructure
  • Increased burden for health care professionals, national medicine regulatory authorities, law enforcement and criminal justice systems.

C. Socioeconomic impact:

  • Lost income due to prolonged illness or death
  • Lost productivity costs to patients and households when seeking additional medical care, the effects of which are felt by businesses and the wider economy
  • Lack of social mobility and increased poverty

What the Government contemplates in India? 

According to the April 09, 2018 news report, “Indian policy think tank Niti Aayog is working to put the entire inventory of drugs made and consumed in the country on blockchain with an intent to crack down on counterfeit and spurious drugs, according to two government sources. The government wants to complete a proof of concept (PoC) solution by the year-end and begin implementation in 2019.”

On May 16, 2018, DTAB reportedly deliberated and approved a Track and Trace mechanism to address this issue. The proposal is a stand-alone measure to combat fake or counterfeit drugs covering 300 pharma products. However, it does not intend to cover the entire drug supply chain integrity with Blockchain technology, in a comprehensive manner.

According to the above report, this particular approach involves asking the pharma manufacturers to print a unique 14-digit alphanumeric code on the package of the drug. While buying any medicine, the individual can inquire via a text message, whether the drug bearing that code is genuine or not.

I wrote an article in this Blog on the use Blockchain by pharma players, on January 22, 2018. You may wish to refer that to know more about it in context of the pharma industry.

Recent Blockchain initiatives by global pharma majors:

Some global pharma layers have already covered some ground with Blockchain, especially in this area.On September 21, 2017, an article titled ‘Big Pharma Turns to Blockchain to Track Meds’, published in Fortune, presented some interesting facts. It indicated: to stop a flow of fake, spurious or counterfeit medicines entering the supply chain and reaching patientshow the pharma industry appears to be on the verge of resolving this long-time problem with the intervention of one of the most modern technology – Blockchain.

A group of companies, including Genentech and Pfizer has announced the MediLedger Project for creating blockchain tools to manage pharmaceutical supply chains. The group, has completed a successful pilot program to track medicines, where all concerned – from drug manufacturers to wholesalers to hospitals and retailers will be recording drug deliveries on a blockchain. This would ensure that, at each step of the distribution process, a network of computers will vouch for the ‘provenance and authenticity’ of a drug shipment—making it virtually impossible for counterfeiters to introduce fake drugs – the article highlighted.

Quoting domain experts, the authors underscored the key difference between current practices in this area and managing supply chain through Blockchain technology. At present, most companies use various software to manage the supply chain. However, these usually consist of a mishmash of different databases. ‘The introduction of a Blockchain system, in which each participant controls a node on the network, and transactions require a consensus, is thus a significant leap forward’ – the experts noted.

On scaling up, if this project achieves the intended goals, it would possibly be a game changer for the pharma companies in addressing the counterfeit or fake drug menace, effectively.

How will Blockchain combat fake or counterfeit drugs?

In India, there are basically four constituents in the pharma supply chain: source of procurement of various ingredients – manufacturers – C&F Agents – wholesalers – retailers, besides hospitals and dispensaries. To avoid counterfeit or fake/spurious drugs in a comprehensive way, it is critical for these constituents to see and share relevant data based on a modern and tamper-proof technology platform. Unfortunately, the current practices mostly fail to address this serious threat in a holistic way.

Experts envisage Blockchain delivering a superior value in this area, as it has the potential to cover end-to-end supply chain network of a pharma business. A November 14, 2017 article appeared in a Harvard Business School publication of Technology and Operations Management (TOM) explains its rationale very well. The paper is titled “Can blockchain help solve the problem of counterfeit drugs?”

In the context of a supply chain it says, blockchain can be used to track the flow of goods and services between businesses and even across borders. At each step of the distribution process, a network of computers can unmistakably indicate the provenance and authenticity of a shipment, making it harder or counterfeiters to introduce fake drugs. The key advantage of this technological process is that

it is virtually impossible for malicious actors to alter the event logs. Another advantage is speed: should a shipment be disrupted or go missing, the data stored on the common ledger would provide a rapid way for all parties trace it, and determine who handled the shipment last, the author elaborates.

Common anti-counterfeit-measures:

In many countries, including India, drug regulators are focusing on putting in place various anti-counterfeit measures, such as, ‘track and trace’ and ‘mass serialization.’ In some nations these mandatory in nature. At present, the most common process, globally, is to have machine-readable codes carrying a serial number featuring on each and every pack of medicines. Many anti-counterfeit solution providers call these in various different names, to position themselves on a marketing high ground. Other such measures include, forensic markers, cloud-based supply chain data repositories are also being talked about.

So far so good, but the current reality continues to remain scary for patients, probably more in India. Each year ‘tens of thousands dying from $30 billion fake drug trade,’ – reported Reuters just recently – on November 28, 2017. As reported by IntelligentHQ on November 3, 2016, ‘studies have shown that the pharmaceutical industry still struggles on two main counts: interoperability between all the participants, from the manufacturer to the dispenser and data management, to better integrate the serialization systems. Being able to avoid drug counterfeiting is just one of the reasons for which it is so critical to successfully track products down the supply chain.’

Conclusion:

Ensuring safety and security of the pharma supply chain – from sourcing to manufacturing to logistics to retail chemist and ultimately to the final consumer, is now possible with the application of Blockchain. In fact, this process has already been developed, and tried in many continents of the world, including Africa (video).

Thus, in my view, for an effective anti-counterfeiting system to work or even a substandard drug ingredient going into any original final product that ultimately will be consumed by patients, the most important requirement is to ensureend-to-end supply chain visibility and integrity.Any stand-alone anti-counterfeit measure can’t possibly provide such holistic solution.

Just to emphasize on this point – what happens, if anything goes wrong during sourcing of ingredients, or during the manufacturing of the original drug? The drug in question, although could be substandard, can’t be termed counterfeit. Hence, any standalone anti-counterfeit mechanism will obviously indicate ‘all is well’ for the patients to consume this original medicine – before the product is ultimately recalled, if and when the defect is detected by other means.

From this perspective, the application of Blockchain technology covering end-to-end supply chain network has the wherewithal of being a game changer – offering safe medicines to patients.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.