GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has begun distributing Trizivir tagged with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology as it intensifies efforts to combat counterfeiting.
The drug giant, which is the world's largest producer of AIDS treatments, is keen to protect Trizivir, a three-in-one combination pill, which has been identified by the US National Association of Boards of Pharmacy as particularly susceptible to counterfeiting.
Among other GSK products flagged by the association as prone to adulteration, counterfeiting or diversion are Combivir, Epivir, Retrovir, Ziagen - all HIV medicines - and Zofran, an anti-emetic used primarily for patients who experience nausea while undergoing chemotherapy.
After evaluating the packaging, packing lines and distribution networks of these drugs, GSK judged Trizivir to be the best candidate to assess RFID on.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has asked the pharmaceutical industry to develop standards and pilot processes for RFID that may lead in the next few years to broad adoption and use of the technology, yet its high costs make this prospect less likely.
"We believe the current costs will decline as reliance on RFID increases and we also believe that this technology has the potential to reduce costs in our supply chain," GSK spokeswoman Mary Anne Rhyne told In-PharmaTechnologist.com.
"The project has cost several million dollars."
The tags are placed on all bottles of Trizivir distributed in the US only and information from this trial will then determine the company's next steps.
GSK has worked with IBM to design and build the technology in the pilot program, which allows the firm to tag each bottle with a unique product code.
The code can be read by wholesalers and pharmacists with special scanners, allowing tight monitoring of drugs as they move through the supply chain.
This allows the manufacturers to more precisely account for medicine as it moves through the distribution chain and to authenticate medicine at the point of dispensing.
This trial follows in Pfizer's footsteps, which in January became the first pharmaceutical company to use RFID on a large scale by tagging shipments of Viagra, one of the world's most counterfeited medicines.
RFID tags have also been used on a smaller scale on opioid drugs, which are often targeted by criminals for diversion into the illegal market.
The FDA has reported that problems of counterfeit drugs are mounting and that in many countries, a quarter or even a half or more of the prescription drugs that people take are not legitimate products.
The governmental agency says that drugs for chronic conditions seem to be among the preferred targets of counterfeiters.
GSK is also looking at other measures, such as packaging design, to discourage counterfeit medicines.