Drugmakers Testing RFID Tags

Counterfeit drugs are as common as a knockoff Hermès tie or Prada bag on the streets of Manhattan.

Counterfeit drugs are as common as a knockoff Hermès tie or Prada bag on the streets of Manhattan. But while the tie or bag may fall apart in a few months, a fake pill can kill you. (See "Drug Busters," for a look at how one pharmaceutical company is battling the counterfeit drug problem.)

In a report last year titled "Combating Counterfeit Drugs," the Food and Drug Administration cited the role technology can play in preventing counterfeiting, both through track-and-trace (for example, RFID) and product authentication (such as holograms and chemical markers) technologies. The FDA is advocating the widespread adoption of RFID tags by 2007, so that companies can electronically track their medicines throughout the supply chain.

Some companies, such as Purdue Pharma, have already begun shipping the painkiller OxyContin in bottles with RFID tags. Pfizer plans on doing the same with Viagra by the end of 2005.

But not everyone thinks RFIDand technology in generalcan secure the drug supply chain. James T. Christian, VP and head of corporate security at Novartis, is one of the doubters. "No one has demonstrated that secure devices in packaging prevent, suppress, eliminate or cut back on counterfeiting," he says. Problems are numerous, says Christian. A tag "has failure rates; it can be cut out of a box; it can be zapped so it doesn't work anymore." And because repackaging is legal in the United States and the European Union, counterfeiters could steal genuine product, replace it with fake, then put the fake stuffwith its original RFID packagingback into the distribution system.

Even with these doubts, Christian notes that Novartis has some pilot RFID projects, partly because Wal-Mart demands it for inventory control purposes. "It's good for supply chain management and recalls," Christian says. He believes RFID is another potential tool in anticounterfeiting efforts, not the solution. "If you can't put a producta pill, tablet, capsule or medicine on the marketuntil you've proven it's effective, then I think we need to prove these various security devices are effective before saying they're the answer to counterfeiting," he says.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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