While COVID-19 and mutations of the coronavirus kept us on our toes in 2020, counterfeiters were able to distribute vast amounts of counterfeit drugs.
Pharmaceutical companies are struggling to monitor their suppliers and verify the authenticity of their supply chain. The booming counterfeiting market always seems to be one step ahead of them. So far, there is only one effective and reliable protection for supply chains: Blockchain Technology.
That’s what CEO and Blockchain expert Arman Sarhaddar elaborates in his article on counterfeit and fake drugs in the pandemic.
Click here to read the original article on the publisher’s platform Builtin.com: While you’ve been distracted by COVID-19, counterfeiters have been pushing fake drugs. Here’s how Blockchain can stop them.
Blockchain against COVID-19 and counterfeit drugs
Blockchain Technology in short is a trustworthy and tamper-proof decentralized system, that provides transparency and counterfeit protection for supply chains. All these features are useful not only in the field of cryptocurrencies and FinTech. Considering the facts, the application of Blockchain seems even more useful for a number of other purposes – including the fight against COVID-19.
Consequently, in March 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) announced its cooperation with companies that are already successfully using Blockchain Technology. IBM, Oracle and Microsoft, are a few well-known examples. The goal, they say, is to develop a platform for collecting and sharing data to help contain the pandemic.
Such a platform is certainly helpful. But it is not the only way to use Blockchain Technology during the health crisis. In our previous article, we already explained 3 Digital Trends that could be revolutionized by Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) or Blockchain in 2021.
Blockchain can help us fight COVID-19 and manage the global crisis in many ways. To mitigate the health risks posed by the global trade in counterfeit and fake drugs, for example, Blockchain can also be used to combat counterfeit medicines.
1. The surge of counterfeit drugs in 2020
Never before have so many scientists around the globe come together to research vaccines and combat a virus. The reason for this clear: The number of infections is increasing exponentially, threatening nearly eight billion people.
In March 2020, Europol published a warning, that there will be a rise in crime related to the pandemic. According to the EU’s law enforcement agency, especially cases of cybercrime, fraud, theft as well as counterfeiting will increase due to the coronavirus.
Catherine De Bolle, Executive Director of Europol: "Criminals abuse fears around the pandemic by selling medicines online which claim to cure the coronavirus. Not only are these medicines fake, but dangerous too. Don't buy them!" #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/fuDBIlaXci
— Europol (@Europol) March 23, 2020
Since then, sales figures of counterfeit medical equipment such as protective gear and counterfeit medicines have been increasing rapidly. Counterfeiters are deliberately stoking people’s fears of shortages (of disinfectants for example) in order to make a profit. The demand for nutritional supplements and vitamins to support the immune system has also been exploited.
In Operation Pangea, a raid against organized crime in March 2020, Europol seized four million packages of various counterfeit drugs and about 34,000 fake surgical masks. Among the fake drugs were antiviral drugs, the anti-malarial drug chloroquine, as well as dietary supplements and vitamin preparations.
Along with other observations around products such as counterfeit antibiotics and Viagra, such incidents demonstrate that popular and much-needed pharmaceuticals are especially hard-hit by counterfeiting.
An end to these activities is far from in sight. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
The demand for vaccines and cures against COVID-19 remains huge. The supply is lagging behind, as we can basically see in every corner of the world. Counterfeiters continue to profit – especially online.
The World Wide Web is the biggest gateway for fake drugs as well as other counterfeit products. Ordering medicines from online pharmacies has become increasingly popular due to limited mobility during lockdown. But some providers cannot be trusted. Criminals lure unsuspecting buyers with seemingly attractive prices and products. During a global health crisis, these activities are particularly dangerous and pose an even greater threat to human life.
2. How Blockchain can fight counterfeit drugs
Pharmaceutical companies try to monitor their suppliers and ensure the quality and the authenticity of products in their supply chain. Yet it is difficult to ensure complete supply chain protection – at least it has been until now.
Blockchain Technology is the best anti-counterfeiting solution available to date. Yet, it can provide a revolutionary level of supply chain transparency and thus, the best protection against counterfeit drugs entering the supply chain so far. Blockchain is based on Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT, that allows data to be stored in a decentralized manner, instead of in a central database.
Each entry is encrypted individually and every change must be verified by all the distributed nodes within the system. This makes it virtually impossible to hack a Blockchain. So, once stored, data cannot be tampered with anymore. The technology therefore makes it much easier to detect fraud and identify weak points in the supply chain. This gives companies full supply chain visibility and optimal counterfeit protection.
The technology also opens up the possibility for any customer to verify the authenticity of a purchased product such as medicine – for example, by scanning a QR code on the product packaging via an app such as ivault. This makes it easy for any buyer to determine whether their product is genuine or whether it is likely to be a counterfeit.
Blockchain Technology is not only a useful anti-counterfeiting solution, but it also increases brand protection as well as product safety and, in the case of pharmaceutical products, patient safety.
In addition to combining Distributed Ledger Technology and QR codes, Blockchain solutions are also compatible with other established technologies, such as NFC, RFID or GPS. These are all technologies that are based on the contactless transfer of data.
As a result, Blockchain can be adjusted to the individual requirements of each company and it comes with a variety of advantages. This makes a Blockchain solution work for manufacturers of a large number of different products – from expensive testing equipment, such as X-ray or MRT machines to vaccines, masks and simple pills.
Thus, ensuring product authenticity at the highest level possible can be achieved by using Blockchain Technology for Supply Chain. At the same time, Blockchain serves as an effective means of deterring counterfeiters, as it is very easy to determine where counterfeit products have entered a supply chain.
It is no wonder that more and more companies are turning to Blockchain Technology during the pandemic. After being trivialized for a long time (and sometimes being equated with cryptocurrencies), its full potential is now being recognized. It can provide the necessary transparency and the highest possible security, and thus also save human lives.
Counterfeit drugs statistics 2021:
Facts and figures to date
Right from the start, the crisis clearly demonstrated the severity and dangers posed by global trade in counterfeit drugs and other fake products. Serious health and safety issues arise when people order fake drugs online, as counterfeit drugs do not contain the right formula and may also contain dangerous ingredients.
During a public health crisis like the one we are confronted with today, the fight against this massive global problem becomes even more acute. Indeed, Interpol, for example, has noted an increase in counterfeit medical products linked to COVID-19.
We too recognized this trend early in the pandemic and formulated 5 forecasts of drug counterfeiting related to the coronavirus based on global counterfeit statistics.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an increasing number of counterfeit drugs are also being sold in developing countries in connection with the coronavirus. Both U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and other countries’ customs authorities reported seizures of counterfeit COVID-19 tests and protective equipment such as face masks and hand sanitizers.
These examples show that, unfortunately, our predictions were correct and to this date too little has been done to tackle these problems. Apart from companies, also governments need to ensure the legal and safe origin of pharmaceutical products both online and in local pharmacies. After all, counterfeit drugs cause considerable economic damage as well as risks to the health and safety of citizens.
To help governments, the OECD and the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) joined forces to provide policymakers with solid empirical data on the value, volume and trends of global trade in counterfeit drugs.
1. Counterfeit and fake products on a global scale
In an updated report, the OECD illustrates some facts and figures on global trade in counterfeit products:
“The results are alarming. In 2016, counterfeit and pirated goods amounted to as much as 3.3% of world trade, and up to 6.8% of EU imports from third countries. These figure underscore once again the need for coordinated action against IP crime in general and trade in counterfeits in particular.“
3,3 % corresponds to as much as 509 billion USD, while in the EU alone, imports of counterfeit products amounted to up to 121 billion euros (134 billion USD). The graphic below shows the products that are the most frequently counterfeited:
2. Counterfeit drugs statistics 2020
Counterfeit drugs not only cause economic losses for the pharmaceutical industry, but also pose a serious threat to the health of the public as a whole. The joint EUIPO/OECD study on trade in counterfeit pharmaceutical products, published on March 23, 2020, shows that international trade in counterfeit drugs reached about €38.9 billion in 2016.
The study shows that counterfeit antibiotics, sexual enhancers or lifestyle drugs, as well as painkillers are dominating. But other counterfeit drugs were also seized (see chart below). Counterfeit drugs may contain too little, too much or no active ingredient of the real drug. They may also be contaminated or contain entirely different ingredients.
Due to counterfeit drugs related tax evasion EU governments lose approximately €1.7 billion in revenue. 96% of all counterfeit medicines seized by customs, are postal or express courier shipments. The social cost of counterfeit drugs is also high. It is estimated that each year more than 80,000 jobs are lost due to counterfeiting in the EU pharmaceutical and related sectors.
However, counterfeit drugs, such as unproven treatments, or fake equipment and accessories, such as corona tests, medical devices, masks, ventilators, gloves, etc., have been flooding not only the European market since the early 2020s.
A number of illegal web shops worldwide promote and sell counterfeit drugs and vaccine fakes for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19. In March 2020, a large number of new domain names were registered for illegal purposes, containing terms such as “covid,” “corona,” and “virus.” These appear to be professional counterfeiters who have previously sold other fake drugs online and are now trying to make a profit from COVID-19-related counterfeit drugs.
The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) has identified many of these illegal online pharmacies that purport to sell prescription drugs for the treatment of COVID-19. They also found that over 90% of the identified COVID-19 domains were registered anonymously, making it difficult for law enforcement agencies.
The pandemic has thus shown that criminals can adapt quickly to new market conditions and always find ways to infiltrate the legal supply chain of pharmaceutical companies. Especially with the lack of an effective anti counterfeiting solution to track and trace the supply chain.
It’s time to put Blockchain to work here.
3. Additional ressources:
EUIPO (Juni 2020), 2020 Status Report on IPR Infringement, Why IP Rights are important, IPR infringement, and the fight against counterfeiting and piracy, doi: 10.2814/165063, https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/d7e6f903-c577-11ea-b3a4-01aa75ed71a1 (visited on 04/01/2021)
European Commission (Dezember, 2020), Commission Staff Working Document, Counterfeit and Piracy Watch List, Brüssel, https://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/press/index.cfm?id=2225 (visited on 04/01/2021)
OECD/EUIPO (März 2020), Trade in Counterfeit Pharmaceutical Products, Illicit Trade, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/a7c7e054-en.
Sarhaddar, Arman (Juni 2020), Wie die Blockchain vor Arzneimittelfälschungen schützt, https://www.industry-of-things.de/wie-die-blockchain-vor-arzneimittelfaelschungen-schuetzt-a-937779/