Counterfeiters may target generic drugs, ‘blockbuster’ drugs taken by large numbers of patients and so-called ‘lifestyle’ drugs used to treat obesity and men’s health problems such as erectile dysfunction and hair loss. Recently, there has been an increase in counterfeiting of medicines for stigmatised conditions (like mental illness) and for treating cancer.
There are hundreds of technological measures available to protect medicines from counterfeiting, with more appearing almost daily. The three main categories are overt, covert and forensic.
Overt (visible) technologies
These are most often found on the packaging. For example, your medicine might have a two-dimensional barcode, an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tag, a hologram, or a label printed in special ink that changes colour when you move the pack in a certain way.
You could ask your pharmacist if your medicine has any of these features and then routinely check each new pack before you use it. The benefit of overt technology is that you can see it straight away. However, this is also the first thing a counterfeiter can see and is therefore the first thing they will attempt to fake.
Covert (invisible) technologies
These technologies may only be visible under laboratory conditions and, while few would claim to be 100% impossible to replicate, they are very difficult for the counterfeiter to fake. These technologies are also used on other products (banknotes and computer software, for example) and tend to be very robust.
These are the most reliable indicator that a medicine is fake. The medicine is analysed under strict laboratory conditions and its chemical ‘fingerprint’ is compared with a control sample. Forensic analysis is most often undertaken when there is compelling evidence that a medicine may have been counterfeited.
Manufacturers usually employ a range of technologies to stay one step ahead of the criminals. See our top tips to discover how you, the patient, can check your own medicine and become the ‘last barrier to harm’.