In the 1980s, counterfeit drugs problem came to the fore when an increasing number of WHO (World Health Organisation) member states pointed towards the emergence of fake medicines in local markets. About 75 percent of counterfeit drugs supplied in the world have some origins in India and Asia is purported to be the region that is producing a sizeable amount of counterfeit drugs as per ACG Report 2003. Other regions that supply counterfeit drugs to the world are Egypt (seven percent) and China (six percent). Collectively, these drugs result in 3,000 deaths globally, every year. Policymakers, leaders, and researchers around the world have identified the enormity of this problem, and continue to raise their concerns. The pervasiveness of fake drugs impacts the world both socially and economically and many strategies are being recommended to put a stop to this issue.

India: Leading Market For Counterfeit Drugs

Counterfeit Drugs problem is rife in the Indian pharmaceutical industry, and according to a survey by CDSCO in 2009, 1,693 drug samples out of 24,136, were found to be adulterated. In 2013, the Pharmaceutical Security Institute uncovered 2,193 incidents of pharmaceutical crime. Moreover, 20 percent of the drugs bought in India are reportedly fake. In April 2019, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) released its Special 301 report and pointed out that India was a breeding ground for counterfeit medicines.

India is the third largest drug producer in the world ( by volume) and by 2020, the pharma market is expected to grow to $55 billion. The presence of counterfeit drugs could cause a dent in the reputation of a growing pharmaceutical industry in India. What’s daunting is that high-income countries have only one percent of spurious drugs in their markets. India has a large market for counterfeit drugs because it has finite access to medical care in rural regions, a fragmented supply chain, self-medication practices, low consumer awareness, expensive genuine medication, loopholes in legislation, prevalence of corruption, lack of funding and regulatory limitations, popularity of internet pharmacies and advancements in counterfeit technology.

How Counterfeit Drugs Can Cause Harm

The repercussions of counterfeit medicines include loss of market share and business opportunities for pharma manufacturers, undermining the use of generic drugs, increased cost to the healthcare systems and resourcing. In 2015, the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) revealed that spurious drugs have caused more deaths in the last 40 years than terrorism. India records 1.5 million cases of malaria every year, and counterfeit anti-malarial drugs are proving to be costly to affected Indians. Drugs like quinines and artemisinins, the common antimalarial drugs are fabricated and primarily sold in developing nations. This causes more deaths, as these drugs don’t contain the ingredients needed to cure malaria. E-pharmacies are taking steps to make sure they don’t sell fake drugs online by spreading awareness, using stringent verification processes, sourcing drugs from authorised distributors, as well as foolproof end-to-end delivery processes.

How Blockchain Can Curb Counterfeit Drugs Problem

The main reason why blockchain can be instrumental in curbing counterfeit drug production is that it is resistant to data modification. It is a type of digital distributed ledger, that can record and transfer data quickly without having to compromise on security. For a blockchain based drug supply chain to function, the manufacturer, the distributors(third-party logistics), pharmacist or hospital must be part of a network powered by blockchain. The whole process of the drug production can be tracked and documented, with chemical ingredients as well as drug bottles, temperatures, locations and packages to make sure they aren’t tampered with along the way. Digital records of all changes; from production to supply to the consumption of drugs by patients; can help detect any faulty areas. Niti Aayog, a policy think tank of the Government of India also believes that blockchain is one of the solutions to restrict and eliminate counterfeiting of drugs.

In the US, Pfizer and Genentech with other pharmaceutical companies have a project already underway, called the MediLedger. It is a blockchain platform that is being designed to stop counterfeit drugs from infiltrating pharma supply chains. If successful, the project will be used to improve security and stop counterfeit drug production globally as well. The pharmaceutical industry is complex and has been resistant to digitisation. Technological advancements like blockchain and more can transform the pharmaceutical sector radically. So the industry must be open to adopting new technology not only to curb counterfeiting through the use of blockchains but also for supply-chain optimisation.