How Medical Plastics Help Fight the Rise of Counterfeit Pharmaceuticals
When it comes to counterfeit goods, most people probably think of knockoffs of luxury watches or handbags. But there is a much more sinister business model on the rise for counterfeiters, one that targets the most vulnerable of customers: sick people. Sadly, plagiarizing pills, not purses, is a big and growing business. Plagiarized pharmaceuticals harm and kill people all over the world. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the annual value of counterfeit goods sold worldwide is around US$1.7 trillion — more than the GDP of Canada. With a share of US$200 billion, counterfeit drugs make up the single-largest segment.
“Pharma counterfeiting is a low-cost, high-profit business opportunity,” says Mark Davison, CEO of Blue Sphere Health, a consultancy based in Cambridge, United Kingdom.
And counterfeiters rarely get caught. By some estimates, distributing counterfeit drugs is 10 to 25 times more profitable than tracking illegal narcotics. The resulting numbers are staggering. According to Interpol and the World Health Organization, up to 10 percent of all medicines worldwide are fake. In certain regions of the world, up to 30 percent of drugs in circulation are fake or substandard, with the highest rates found in poor and developing countries.
"Sadly, plagiarizing pills, not purses, is a big and growing business."
In 2016 Clariant teamed up with SICPA, a fellow Swiss company, to fight this trend. SICPA specializes in security inks as well as other authentication solutions and services. Its products are found in banknotes and passports all over the world. They also help companies protect their products and brands with specially secured packaging.
Together with Clariant, SICPA has developed an end-to-end system that uses an additive (“taggant”) that goes into the plastics used for medical devices or packaging materials – like those used to protect and ship pharmaceuticals. The key component in PLASTIWARD™ is a special taggant, a marker that is detectable only with SICPA’s proprietary handheld detectors. Holding one of SICPA’s electronic devices, which are the size of a pen, to any medical device will show you whether it’s made of the original plastic or not. Unlike holograms, printed marks or serial numbers on packaging, PLASTIWARD becomes an integral part of the device itself.
“We developed a system that brings authentication as close to the medication as possible,” says Yann Ischi, a director of Product and Brand Protection at SICPA. “It allows inspectors to authenticate products on the spot, wherever they are. It’s all part of a complete system that allows for real-time detection, tracking and investigation.”
SICPA’s detector pens not only immediately identify fakes; they track the location and the time of the find, making it easier to map cases and find patterns of how those fakes might have entered the supply chain. “Monitoring the detection of fakes in real time, with total accuracy, saves so much time and money and allows people like us to quickly and confidently take steps to track the sellers and stop them,” explains Benedict Hamilton, a managing director at Kroll, a global investigation firm.
For Kroll that involves enhancing the evidence and building a criminal or commercial case against the counterfeiters at the top of the chain.
But how reliable is SICPA’s method, and might counterfeiters find ways to replicate it? “SICPA’s non-visible taggant is detectable only with a SICPA device,” says Steve Duckworth, head of Global Segment Medical and Pharma at Clariant. “This unique interaction is extremely complex and impossible to replicate for outsiders. Also, the system provides several layers of protection, which are always specifically tailored to the customer’s needs and to each product.”
While all this complexity makes PLASTIWARD secure and hard to crack, Clariant and SICPA have worked hard to make its actual implementation as easy as possible. “The taggant has no impact on the characteristics of the material or the devices themselves,” Duckworth says. “It is also designed to have no impact on any manufacturing or packaging processes for our customers. It’s biocompatible and falls under the same regulation as common color concentrates used in existing plastic processing for medical devices, so there are no additional regulatory requirements either.”
Clariant and SICPA are zealous in the fight against counterfeit pharmaceuticals. It’s not just about brands, margins or markets, though fake drugs clearly damage all three. It is also about trust – a trust in modern medicine that a single experience with fake drugs can erode. Because all too often that experience can be a matter of life or death.