No to Fake Drugs: Battling Pharma Counterfeiting With SMS And Mobile Tech

Posted by PenelopeChester on Aug 24, 2010

Femi Soremekun, managing director of Nigeria-based Biofem Pharmaceuticals, is all too familiar with the fight against counterfeit drugs. In late 2008, a distributor notified him that he suspected that one of Biofem’s products, Glucophage, was being counterfeited. After checking batch and inventory numbers, Soremekun reassured him there was no evidence of such activity. It was only after more allegations surfaced that he sent a sample to French manufacturer Merck & Co. to be analyzed. Turns out the claims were correct. “I was very shocked,” Soremekun says. “[The counterfeiters] got into my market, counterfeited my product, and I wasn’t even aware of it. I was losing sales.”

It was around this time that Soremekun learned about Sproxil, a start-up company that is part of a consortium that includes Nigeria’s pharmaceutical industry association and the country’s regulating agency. The group explores technology-based strategies to tackle drug counterfeiting. On the sidelines of the consortium, Biofem and Sproxil discussed implementing a drug-certification process in order to restore Biofem customers’ confidence in Glucophage. Following a successful five-month trial in Nigeria involving about one million units of Biofem’s product, the company has seen sales pick up again. “We ended up being called the guinea pig,” Soremekun jokes.

A Growing Field

Sproxil, whose mobile authentication service relies on a simple SMS-based technology, is one of a number of players in the mobile health field focusing on drug counterfeiting. Allison Bloch, who has worked with the GSM Association, says that growing competition and development in mobile health in recent years has spurred evolution in the field.

In parallel, a shift in institutional focus towards developing a better understanding of customer psychology in emerging markets is paving the way for bottom-up approaches like SMS-based technology to gain currency. When it comes to tackling a complex problem like drug counterfeiting, companies are showing a keen interest in simple, consumer-focused strategies that can enhance the value and relevance of their products in developing and emerging markets.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags – intelligent barcodes that require the use of electronic readers – are used around the world in supply-chain management, logistics and mobile payments. RFID tags are not well-suited for emerging markets, however, because the technology relies on the existence of a solid tech ecosystem to support it. SMS-based technology, on the other hand, enables pharmaceutical companies and regulating agencies to put a simple and potentially highly effective solution in the hands of the end-user.

While companies like Sproxil are tackling the counterfeiting issue by directly authenticating drugs for pharma companies, other players are taking different approaches. MPedigree, another group in the Nigerian consortium, is working on creating a global standard to address counterfeiting.  According to Bright Simon of mPedigree, mPedigree is a 'social enterprise' that is encouraging the adoption of mobile certification as a viable, long-term solution to drug counterfeiting.

Blister Packs and SMS for Authentication

Alden Zecha, Sproxil’s chief financial officer, is proud of his company’s recent success. “We’ve made significant progress because our core principle is to deliver results, and that’s what we are doing,” he says. Sproxil’s SMS-based Mobile Authentication Service was first deployed during a trial involving Biofem’s drug Glucophage. The trial took place between February and March 2010, with 125 pharmacies in three major Nigerian cities taking part.

Sproxil’s technology relies on the inclusion of a unique PIN on scratch cards in the drug’s packaging. The consumer reveals the PIN on the card and sends an encrypted text message (using a free shortcode) to a cloud computing server. This server then generates an immediate response indicating whether the drug is real or fake.

During the Biofem trial, over 700,000 blister packs of Glucophage were labeled, and 22,638 SMS messages were sent and received by 6,761 unique consumers. The trial showed a 99.9912% cloud authentication system responsiveness, Sproxil says. (Both Biofem and Sproxil declined to share the actual authentication results. Sproxil CEO Ashifi Gogo says “the fear is that [the pharmaceutical companies] are going to pick up tomorrow’s papers and read that x percent of their drugs on the market are fake.”)  To date, Gogo says, his company has labeled over a million blister packs with scratch cards all around Nigeria; the goal is to reach 2.5 million packs by the end of the year.

Gogo and Zecha both indicated they’re involved in negotiations with prospective customers in Africa, as well as in Asia and South America. In these new markets they plan on partnering with much larger companies that already operate there.

Sproxil’s goal is to “generate value that is of interest to pharmaceutical companies as well as regulators,” Gogo says. “It’s business with a large social benefit,” adding that using going the commercial route “is one of the things we did differently: we have more of a traditional business approach, and it’s really paid off.”

Partnerships with Industry

While Sproxil is focused on ensuring safety in the pharmaceutical market by securing new contracts and expanding its customer base, mPedigree is looking to achieve the same result by influencing industry leaders. The firm is working with industry on a way to make mobile certification standard practice. Bright Simons, director of mPedigree, believes an industry-wide effort is necessary to make mobile authentication the solution to thwarting drug counterfeiting.

With this in mind, the company is serving as a bridge between technology innovators and institutional industry players, such as drug companies, governments and regulators. mPedigree is currently working in Nigeria with major pharmaceutical companies like GSK, Sanofi-Aventis and Pfizer. It’s also working with the Nigerian National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control on a framework for making mobile certification a standard service. “Once we resolve certain key questions, a process in which every medicine in Nigeria will bear a code is going to begin,” Simons says.

One of the key questions is related to the cost of implementing a universal mobile authentication service. More specifically, how will the application of this technology translate into per-unit costs? Simons spends a lot of time traveling the globe in an effort to get major stakeholders on the same page when it comes to mobile authentication technology. Through his involvement with the Aspen Institute as a National Geographic fellow and the World Economic Forum’s mobile communications global agenda council, he says he’s trying to ensure that the “top leadership” is mobilized on the issue.

Sproxil and mPedigree's History and Focus

Sproxil and mPedigree have different approaches to promoting mobile drug certification technology.
There’s a twist to this story, however.  Ashifi Gogo and Bright Simons used to be partners in the first incarnation of mPedigree, before Gogo decided to go his own way with Sproxil due to what Simons describes as “a growing distance in terms of focus.”  The two parted ways and there is still significant acrimony between the men and the early history of mPedigree. (Editor's note: We noted conflicting details in interviews with both Simons and Gogo that could not be reconciled, and were warned of 'potential legal implications' in regard to some of our assertions made in this article.)

Today, the way each company manages its technology today reflects the inclinations of its leader.

Gogo’s engineering background shapes his hands-on approach with Sproxil, while Simons’ experience with development research and social studies led him to seek out partners to develop and manage the technology mPedigree is promoting.

The Sproxil platform is flexible, Gogo says. Among its features is a portal that shows how many unique users companies are gaining every month; it can also generate custom graphs for sales. The inclusion of customized recommendations to the consumer in the outgoing response message is another way companies can establish a direct connection with the end-user of their product. (For Glucophage, for example: “Diabetic? Check your blood sugar levels often to better manage.”) For new deployments, all that needs to be adapted is the language and content of the SMS. Gogo hinted that Sproxil is working to support different labeling formats to suit specific client needs.

Simons, on the other hand, admits that mPedigree is “not interested in managing the technological infrastructure” behind its efforts. The firm is working with HP, a leading provider of cloud-computing and data-center management, on a different system. According to Simons, mPedigree is also collaborating with several other Fortune 500 companies on other technical aspects, including innovations in the printing and labeling of medicine packets to allow for a smooth integration with the rest of the mobile authentication system. (UPDATE: We were asked to remove the names of the specific companies by Mr. Simons.)

“Medicine trade is dominated by very sophisticated, risk-averse businesses,” Simons says. “So we needed a really heavyweight partner on the technology side.” Having HP involved helps mPedigree to resolve trust and brand issues, he says, and signals to major industry players that the technology is reliable and credible.

Succeeding where Others Fail

“The industry in Nigeria has been looking for solutions, searching for types of technologies that could work” to help combat drug counterfeiting, says Femi Soremekun, the Biofem executive who took a chance with Sproxil. Nigeria had considered using a hologram-based security device that was successful in Malaysia, he says. “GSK had a malaria product which they put a hologram on, but within a month, they had seen fake holograms on counterfeit products that looked more original than the GSK hologram. “That scared everybody,” he adds, “because if the hologram technology is being tampered with on a GSK product, what’s going to happen with the rest of the industry?”

This is where Sproxil and mPedigree come in.

Sproxil’s commercial success and mPedigree’s progress in partnering with key global industry players are a testament to the market’s growing acceptance of mobile authentication technology as an effective means of combating counterfeiting.  Sproxil and mPedigree “are operating at the vanguard of the field,” says Simons. “We’ve been carried along by the right crests on the current mobile health wave.”

Penelope Chester is an occasional writer for She tweets at @penelopeinparis.

Photo courtesy Wayan Vota

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