The project taps into mobile phone technology that millions of people have access to and as mobile phones spread across the developing world the low-tech, resource-limited environment the scheme intends to occupy could work to its advantage.
The system works by including unique codes on packages. Glucophage (metformin) was used in the pilot phase. Buyers text the series of codes to a SMS text number and get an immediate reply of “original” or “fake” along with the drug's name, registration number, and other information.
In conjunction with the Nigerian National Agency for Food and Drug Administration (NAFDAC) and Biofem Pharmaceuticals, the technology has been developed by Sproxil, who believe the project’s initial success paves the way for further uses of the SMS.
“By using SMS, a standard on phones made in the last decade, Sproxil is able to provide its life-saving service to anyone who has a cell phone,” said Ashifi Gogo, co-founder and CEO, of Sproxil.
“The innovation of crowd sourced pharmacovigilance allows NAFDAC to effectively have 70 million eyes in pharmacies and points of sale nationwide, allowing NAFDAC to respond to intelligence provided by anyone with a cell phone who suspects they may not have received a genuine drug,” he added.
“NAFDAC seems to be one of the leading regulators in the world that now has a "911 for fake drugs" line, processing thousands of SMS messages every month.”
Despite the efforts of the authorities, counterfeiters have continued to devise methods of continuing their illegal trade producing fake goods that are near-perfect in appearance.
In an attempt to keep one step ahead of the authorities, counterfeiters have reacted to NAFDAC's service in Nigeria, by attempting to co-sell blisters of Glucophage that have Sproxil’s label with ones that don't, in a bid to trick consumers to purchase fake versions alongside the genuine product.
“However, since consumers feel empowered with our technology to authenticate themselves, they continue to demand that every blister they purchase has a Sproxil label so that they can authenticate their medication themselves,” said Gogo.
“This has foiled the counterfeiter's plan and through the collective power of empowered consumers, counterfeiters have been sent back to the drawing board.”
Counterfeits in Africa
Counterfeit products are a particular problem in the African Subcontinent, especially in Nigeria. Last year, 12 people were accused of substituting glycerine in My Pikin Baby Teething Mixture for diethylene glycol, a chemical normally found in antifreeze, which has been linked to the deaths of 84 children.
According to The World Health Organization a figure of 50 per cent has been suggested as an estimate of the quantity of fake medicines circulating in Nigeria. In 2006, NAFDAC gave a more reserved figure of 16 per cent.
The pharmaceutical industry is currently in search of a solution that works without the added burden of proprietary scanners, readers or other gadgets that limit the public's access to genuine medication.
By using any ordinary phone, pharmaceutical companies could potentially see this model as highly accessible to their end-users. Gogo said there had been interest from pharmaceutical companies, adding that there had been meetings with ‘big pharma’ and generic drug manufacturers in the USA and India.
“We hope to announce new partnerships and clients next quarter,” he said.
The full results of the 100-day pilot project can be viewed here.