RFID partnership aims to tackle medicine counterfeiting in Africa10-Sep-2010
Radiofrequency identification (RFID) has yet to claim more than a toehold even in established pharmaceutical markets, but a partnership of technology companies is planning to make it part of the everyday supply chain in Africa.
A just-announced collaboration between RFID chip manufacturer Verayo, scanner specialist SkyeTek and medical technology firm GlobalPCCA is ready to start supplying a secure, low-cost and easy-to-use RFID system in Nigeria and other African countries that would allow verification of pharmaceutical products by the consumer.
The intent is for pharmaceutical manufacturers to affix RFID tags using Verayo's 'unclonable' chips onto packs of medicine, which could be scanned by a range of RFID readers supplied by SkyeTek. The readers include a tray-like device - called the Traytesta - which could be used to verify products within a pharmacy, and a lightweight, battery-powered pen reader - the Pentesta - designed for use by consumers.
GlobalPCCA has provided the specifications for the system and also brings an in-depth knowledge of the Nigerian market stemming from its activities in another area, the promotion of local compounding and production of medicines by hospital pharmacies using reliable, certified raw materials.
Dr. Steve Ams, a physician who heads up GlobalPCCA, told SecuringPharma.com that the objective was to develop a system that does not rely on online technologies such as the Internet or cellular networks, can work away from a power source and provides a very simple 'yes' or 'no' result. Crucially the system has to be affordable for pharmaceutical manufacturers operating in Africa.
"It is important to have a technology that can work just as readily in a rural, remote village as in a city," said Ams. As the Pentesta is battery-powered and the authenticity of a tag can be determined offline, the Verayo and SkyeTek system fits the bill perfectly, he added.
The Pentesta has a 12-hour battery life and can scan a tag in just a few milliseconds, displaying a green light if the tag is authentic and a red light if it cannot be verified.
Moreover, the partners believe their proposition is unrivalled in its ability to offer secure RFID at a price that can be feasibly adopted by pharmaceutical manufacturers in the developing world.
Security is afforded by the use of Verayo's M series of chips, which are based on a technology known as Physical Unclonable Functions (PUF) invented at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
These PUFs provide a unique signature for each chip, akin to a fingerprint, which means that it cannot be cloned, according to Vivek Khandelwal, Verayo's vice president of marketing and business development.
The chips are designed so that they are deactivated if they are removed from one product and affixed to another, and because the PUF signature is intrinsic to the chip and does not rely on the application of any additional technology, costs are kept low.
"Our secure chips can be applied to a product at a price point that is the same as non-secure RFID, and when combined with SkyeTek's reader provide an unrivalled low-cost authentication solution," said Khandelwal in an interview.
Once volumes of RFID tags rise, it should be possible to add them to products for well under 10 cents a unit, including the chip, antenna, substrate and assembly, which Khandelwal believes is economically feasible in the context of African pharmaceutical markets, at least for some products.
Meanwhile, Josh Peifer of SkyeTek believes that the initial cost of the Pentesta reader will be around the $50 mark, with prices dipping to as little as $20 once volumes rise to around a million units.
"When you consider the impact of counterfeit medicines in Nigeria and the huge population, we believe reaching a million units with this reader is realistic," he said.
Ams hopes that with NAFDAC's backing - and the endorsement of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria - the project will move ahead swiftly, noting that the first tags are expected to be available "within a few weeks."
"A number of different groups have committed to use the system," he said, adding that GlobalPCCA is scheduled to meet with NAFDAC Director General Dr. Paul Orhii at the end of this month to discuss how to move the project forward.
The partners see Nigeria as the natural first market for the system, mainly because the government there has been so active in tackling the counterfeit trade, but in time wants to roll it out across the African continent and beyond.
Pharmaceuticals is the most obvious sector to target, but the intention is also to explore other applications, such as substandard food, counterfeit consumer products and document security.
"Counterfeiting is a huge problem seeking a solution," commented Anant Agrawal, CEO of Verayo.
"The only way to address this problem is by empowering the consumers so that they themselves can authenticate the product they are buying."
Mini-manufacturing project also making progress
Meanwhile, Ams sees the partnership with Verayo and SkyeTek as a perfect complementary fit for GlobalPCCA's compounding project, which aims to solve the perennial problem of medicine availability, accessibility and affordability in Nigeria by helping hospitals and clinics produce their own drugs.
Avoiding stock outages at federal hospitals can not only improve public health but also avoid scenarios in which patients try to source medicines from the private sector, raising the risk of exposure to counterfeits, he said.
GlobalPCCA offers pharmacist training, ingredient and equipment supply to hospitals under its 'Mini Mac' project, and says the Nigerian government has allocated budget to advance the scheme.
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