Barcode strategy in war against counterfeit medicines

ABU DHABI // All medicines in the capital could soon be marked with high-tech barcodes to try to stamp out the huge market in counterfeit drugs. The Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD) plans to use the system to track and trace the supply and distribution of legitimate medicines. An estimated Dh1.4 billion is spent on pharmaceuticals each year in the UAE. Although precise figures are difficult to come by, globally it is estimated that fake drugs worth about 10 per cent of the legitimate market are seized each year.

Dr Mohammed Abuelkhair, the head of drug regulation at HAAD, said the new system could be in place early next year. If it is a success, he said, HAAD would present its findings to the federal Ministry of Health. "The barcode is placed on every package of medicine," he said. "All the medicines that comes into the country goes to the agent, and before it leaves the agent it will be barcoded with a special, unique, code, then it goes to the pharmacies."

Distributing agents would have to liaise with the authority to work out what barcodes they would need. Every box of medicine will come with a randomly selected number and barcode containing information about the manufacturer, batch number and expiry dates. It will also include information such as dose and strength. Dr Abuelkhair said: "The pharmacies can use the barcode for point-of-contact sale, but also to verify that the medicine is genuine.

"And the patient can go home with the packet, dial a number, and, using the code on the box it will tell him about the medicine so he knows whether it is real or fake." It would be almost impossible for counterfeiters to forge the numbers because they would be randomly selected and unique to each packet. If they did try, he said, it would trigger an alarm when the genuine number is scanned by a pharmacy at the point of sale.

Dr Abuelkhair said the risks of taking fake medicines ranged from antibiotic resistance to death, depending on the ingredients. A series of raids in Egypt in 2008 found counterfeit medicines valued at hundreds of millions of dollars and "exposed a criminal network feeding consumers across the Middle East", according to the World Health Organisation. The Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, which is based in the US, estimates that global counterfeit drug sales could reach US$75 billion (Dh275bn) this year.

In May, Dubai Customs seized seven million sexual stimulant and fertility drug tablets from a warehouse in the dry port, estimated to be worth as much as $70m. Yasar Yaman, the regional director of global security at Pfizer, which makes the male impotence drug Viagra, said the company had found fake medicines made in "rodent and pest-infected" laboratories. Around 40 Pfizer medicines are known to have been counterfeited.

Mr Yaman, who is based in Dubai, said: "We've also seen supposedly 'sterile' injectables filled with ordinary tap water in bathrooms." Ingredients have included brick dust, antifreeze, paint, arsenic, plaster and wallboard. Since 2004, more than 58 million counterfeit Pfizer tablets, capsules and vials have been seized. In the UAE the company has identified fake versions of Lipitor, used to treat high cholesterol, and Viagra. Mr Yaman said he recognised that these may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Dr Abuelkhair said it was often difficult to tell how fake medicines entered the market. Some may come in the mail as private packages, others are sold by wholesalers. As counterfeiting grows more sophisticated, it is becoming increasingly difficult to spot a fake without testing it in a laboratory. Ashley How, a UK-based member of the Pharmaceutical Security Initiative, a non-profit anti-counterfeiting initiative, said the packaging was particularly hard to tell apart from that of legal medicines.

"It is so similar to the genuine packaging, a system of authenticating the genuine from the counterfeit is essential," he said. "At the pharmacy level it's the pharmacist that has the last bit of real control over that individual package before it's handed to the patients." Mr How said a system was required that would allow pharmacists to check authenticity by quickly scanning the package.


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