Blue Sphere Health

Pharmaceutical Anti-Counterfeiting: Lessons from Avastin

Counterfeit medicines are not an entirely new thing in the American consciousness but when fake Avastin was reported this week it sent a larger than usual ripple through the news media.  I have been interviewed in the past 24 hours by Al Jazeera (see link or at right) and the Wall Street Journal. Why the fuss? Maybe it was because Avastin is a Swiss-designed, injectable cancer drug used only in hospitals.  This is a long way from dodgy Viagra bought over the internet or on a foreign trip, which is the image most people associate with fake drugs – if they even consider the issue at all.  Somehow, counterfeits have breached what should be a super-safe hospital supply chain and may have put patients at risk (although exactly how many patients received the medication is unclear).  Roche and Genentech were not directly at fault in this case but are there lessons that can be learned from their misfortune? How and why did this event happen and what can companies do to stop it happening to their products? The simple answer to the “how?” question is that plausible-looking fake Avastin packs, bearing familiar brand names and logos and containing authentic-looking vials, were good enough to fool professional medics.  It might be impossible for doctors and nurses to check the chemical composition of the active ingredients, but closer inspection would have revealed that the packs were apparently French in origin and bore the hallmark of parent company Roche, not the livery of the US-licensed manufacturer (and Roche subsidiary) Genentech.  The appliance of common sense should then have started alarm bells ringing, and indeed it may have been user vigilance that picked up this event in the first place.  FDA is now investigating. The “why?” question is more complex but the answer boils down to organisations trying to shave dollars off their drug bill by buying from grey market channels.  The French packs were supplied by a foreign distributor to at least 19 practices in the USA. Where exactly the distributor got them from will be established (I hope) during the investigation.  If hospitals and medical systems stick to the standard, regulated supply chain there is very little risk of receiving counterfeit products but it is precisely when people go “off-piste”, as appears to have occurred in this incident, that they put patients’ welfare at risk. If you’re a drug manufacturer or distributor, how do you stop a counterfeiting incident damaging your reputation and harming your customers? The first stage is to have a strategic approach and to act before you have to.  Don’t wait for the calls from FDA, CNN and concerned patients.  As they say in aviation, if you think safety is expensive try having an accident. I have written here several times about our DRASTIC framework for approaching anti-counterfeiting in a planned way.  The current move to serialization, epedigree and other traceability systems is soaking up a lot of budget and management time this year. There are legislative deadlines coming up in the USA, the European Union and elsewhere that will require manufacturers to code every single pack they make.  This will enable far greater supply chain transparency than we have today and will make it far harder for counterfeiters to insert industrial quantities of product into the legitmate supply chain.  But the dash for codes should not obscure the role played by old-fashioned authentication.  Visual inspection and the use of physical features – intrinsic or added, visible or covert – to reliably differentiate real from fake products is still a valuable tool in the arsenal.  An integrated anti-counterfeiting strategy needs both digital coding and physical authentication.  Neither is sufficient in isolation but together they are a strong deterrent against all but the most determined criminals. For those who would seek to delay mandatory compliance deadlines such as those in California (2015) or the EU (2016-17), ask yourselves whether it wouldn’t be a better strategy to get organised and get moving with your own initiatives so that the next Avastin-type incident doesnt happen on your patch. If you don’t know where to start, or you need help fine-tuning your strategy and tactics, we can help.  Blue Sphere Health are worldwide specialists in serialization, epedigree, authentication and related aspects of product security.  Contact us today for a confidential discussion or get in touch with me personally right now at mark(dot)davison(at)bluespherehealth(dot)com.      

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Pharmaceutical Anti-Counterfeiting

Combating the Real Danger from Fake Drugs has become a must-have primer on anti-counterfeiting and is widely used by drug companies, regulators and others. The book covers the legal, strategic and political issues as well as the technical counter-measures such as process control, digital serialisation and physical security.


Pharmaceutical Anti-Counterfeiting book