The pharmaceutical industry is drowning in counterfeit medicines. And it is also becoming harder to identify them.
In 2018 alone, the number of counterfeit seizures soared by 63% from the previous year. Last year, Hong Kong customs announced its largest counterfeit medicine bust in a decade. And in today’s heightened health awareness because of COVID-19, the situation will only get worse.
Hong Kong residents understand the importance of identifying counterfeit medicine. Yet, a recent survey by Zuellig Pharma showed a vast majority of Hong Kong residents are “unlikely and unconfident” to verify their medicine.
Part of the problem is a poor understanding of drug verification which counterfeiters exploit. The survey noted that 88% of respondents were unaware of what counterfeit medicines are.
Generic medicines cloud the picture further with over half (52%) incorrectly believing that counterfeit medicines are the same as generic medicines.
A generic medicine contains the same chemical ingredient as the original one, but was previously protected by chemical patents. Counterfeit medicine can include products with wrong ingredients, insufficient or without active ingredients, or with fake packaging.
Although 91% of Hong Kong people place great importance on verifying medicines, the survey found more than half are unlikely to verify the authenticity (57%) and are not confident in verifying (58%).
Current methods of verification are also rudimentary. These include checking if the security seal is intact, and looking out for unusual fonts, font sizes, print color and spelling errors. But as counterfeiters grow more sophisticated, these will not be enough.
“The research shows an urgent need to raise the public’s understanding on counterfeit medicines and provide them with ways to protect themselves,” says Andi Umbricht, chief executive for Hong Kong and Macau at Zuellig Pharma. He notes that globally counterfeit medicines are on the rise and some estimates indicate that over a one million people a year are either killed or see their treatment progress significantly diminished.
"It is everyone’s responsibility to take precautionary measures to fight against counterfeiters,” Umbricht adds.
The pharmaceutical giant's new eZTracker aims to address this issue. It is a mobile app that uses blockchain technology to quickly find out whether a medicine is authorized to be distributed in Hong Kong with a simple QR code scan. It allows users to verify the medicine at the point of purchase.
“With our commitment to providing high quality innovative solutions and enhancing product quality for customers, we have developed eZTracker to help people confidently verify if a drug is imported by an authorized distributor with just a quick scan. This supports our focused mission of making quality healthcare more accessible to the Hong Kong community,” says Umbricht.
Zuellig Pharma is also collaborating with other pharmaceutical companies to expands the scope of the verification. Currently, it is working with global pharmaceutical company Merck Sharp & Dohme (Asia) (MSD) to allow users to verify its HPV vaccine via the app.
Photo credit: iStockphoto/Kirill Greshnov