The authentication system, developed by UK-based firm Aegate, uses a simple 2D barcode along with a scanner device incorporated into an existing mobile phone. The barcode is scanned by the phone, and is then decoded by Aegate software and a response sent through to the mobile phone confirming or questioning a product's authenticity.
This entire process takes less than a second, a real advantage in developing countries where verifying pharmaceutical products as genuine can take up to two days, potentially leaving healthcare workers to make a judgement call on whether to prescribe potentially fake and dangerous drugs to sick patients.
The technology the new system is based on has been running successfully in Belgium since last year, with an online network linking pharmaceutical manufacturers to pharmacies. Whereas this Internet-based system worked well in Europe, limited access in developing countries ruled out an online solution.
Mobile phone coverage, however, was found to be much more widespread and so the company adapted the technology model to make the authentication system available to healthcare workers in developing regions such as Africa or Asia.
"More than 30 per cent of counterfeit medicines are to be found in the developing world," said Gary Noon, Aegate CEO.
"However we have long recognised that solutions developed for the developed world cannot just be extended to the developing world due to differences in environment. Aegate's process of authentication is successful because it does not rely on a single technology solution meaning that counterfeit prevention can be achieved in any environmental condition."
The European version of the technology, which is due to be rolled out in Greece over the next few months, is currently protecting over 18m products in Belgium with numbers growing daily.
As well as online communication, the system available in Europe includes a multi-technology scanner, so is able to work effectively with a variety of barcode or security forms, such as radio frequency identification (RFID), 2D barcodes or other features.
Several pharmas have signed up to work with Aegate in Belgium, including Merck Sharpe and Dohme and Eli Lilly, as well as generics manufacturers Ratiopharm, Merck Generics and Boehringer Ingleheim's over-the-counter (OTC) division.
Aegate started developing the idea of the mobile phone based authentication system just last year, and anticipates the technology being in widespread use across the developing world during the course of this year.
In Belgium, the system is provided free of charge to pharmacies, and will continue to be provided at no cost to pharmacies in other coutries taking up the system. The company was, however, unable to confirm any pricing plans for the new version of the technology to be introduced in developing countries at this stage.
Counterfeit drugs are a growing problem all over the world, with the International Narcotics Control Board only recently warning that stronger measures were required to stem the flow of fake drugs flooding the global market.
Aegate's new technology is being presented this week at the first meeting of the World Health Organization's counterfeit drugs taskforce, IMPACT (International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce).
The meeting, taking place in Prague today, will discuss various technology solutions that could be used to help deter or detect counterfeit medicines, as well as the possibility of a global coding system for medical products.