Keeping counterfeit drugs off shelves

Ashley Milne-Tyte Apr 20, 2006

Keeping counterfeit drugs off shelves

Ashley Milne-Tyte Apr 20, 2006


Some products that are pirated are relatively harmless. No one’s gonna die from a bootleg copy of Brokeback Mountain. But counterfeit prescription drugs – that’s another story. Although its rare, they can wind up on the drugstore shelf without you knowing it.

Ashley Milne-Tyte has our story.

In 2002 Long Island teenager Tim Fagan had a liver transplant. Afterwards, he was put on a drug called Epogen to combat anemia. Fagan’s father, Kevin, says one night he and his wife were woken out of a sound sleep by their son’s piercing screams . . . .

KEVIN FAGAN: . . . We went running into the bedroom . . . Tim was just writhing in pain, in the bed, going into like almost like a full body seizure.

Turns out the Epogen they’d bought from CVS was counterfeit.

As for how this could happen, right now there’s no system-wide method for tracking drugs as they move through the supply chain. Counterfeiters can exploit that weakness and dilute real drugs or swap them for fakes.

What happened to the Fagans is pretty rare. Counterfeit drugs are estimated to make up 1% of US drug sales — not all cause such a dangerous reaction. Still, it’s enough to worry drug makers.

Purdue Pharma makes the painkiller Oxycontin. It’s now piloting an electronic tracking system. Each bottle the company ships to Wal-Mart and wholesaler HD Smith contains a radio frequency ID tag. It has a unique number so when it arrives at its destination . . .

AARON GRAHAM: You place the bottle at the end of the RFID gun, pull the trigger . . . [blip-blip noise] . . . and you get a read.

Aaron Graham is the company’s chief security officer. He shows me how when he passes an RFID reader or gun over the label, the gun’s screen fills with information, including a multi-digit number.

AARON GRAHAM: . . . And then it tells you where to call to get verification that that number is authentic, that it’s a Purdue RFID electronic code, and then we at Purdue can tell you where that product originated and where it should be today in the supply chain.

Sounds good. But . . .

JOHN THERIAULT: Is RFID you know a magic bullet that’s gonna solve this tomorrow? The answer’s absolutely not.

John Theriault heads security at Pfizer, which makes Viagra. The company has tagged all bottles of Viagra that ship in the US. But Theriault says only one of the wholesalers Pfizer ships to has invested in the technology to read the tags.

JOHN THERIAULT: You have to understand that for RFID to work, there has to be technology deployed throughout the entire supply chain from the manufacturer to the point of sale. And that technology is currently expensive; it currently does not exist throughout the entire supply chain.

For now, he says, Pfizer is limiting the number of times a drug can change hands. It now requires wholesalers to buy drugs directly from Pfizer or from other wholesalers to whom Pfizer sells directly. Theriault says until RFID is industry wide, tightening up the supply chain is the most effective way to clamp down on counterfeit drugs.

— Ashley Milne-Tyte

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