Indian think tank backs blockchain for medicine security

An influential think tank that advises the government of India has said that all medicines sold in the market should be traceable using a barcode and blockchain-based system – and wants to get a pilot underway as soon as possible.

According to local news reports, the NITI Aayog policy advisory group wants a system that will be applicable to all medicines produced and consumed in India – including imports – and the timeframe to put that in place is ambitious to say the least – a proof-of-concept study completed by year-end, and implementation starting next year.

Blockchain - the underpinning technology for crypto-currencies such as bitcoin - is riding a wave of hyper at the moment, with pilots cropping up across multiple industries to put the distributed ledger technology though its paces as a means of preventing counterfeiting and fraud in supply chains. Pharma is no exception, and earlier this year DHL and Accenture unveiled a blockchain-based serialization project to combine pharma track-and-trace with product verification.

India is already operating a traceability system for exported drugs which requires unique serial numbers to be added to medicine packs and data to be uploaded to a Drug Authentication and Verification Application (DAVA) portal. However, efforts to extend the its scope to include drugs sold within its borders have thus far stalled, in part at least because of concerns that implementing the measure too quickly could be financially challenging for smaller companies and lead to disrupted production and shortages. Expanding serialization to domestic medicines has been mandated in the High Court, but as yet the Indian government has not formulated a plan to take this forward.

Relatively low-tech and inexpensive solutions such as verification of on-pack barcodes via SMS have been deployed in India but haven’t been adopted on a national scale, and layering blockchain into a system is likely to be more challenging and costly. For comparison, in the US a blockchain pilot for medicines traceability is underway but there is no mandate to adopt the technology, with efforts focused initially on achieving mass serialization and verification of codes from 2019.

There is no official document from the think tank or India’s government just yet, but a blockchain policy paper is expected to be published in the summer. That will cover not only pharmaceuticals but also other segments where blockchain technology may be applicable, such as handling and securing electronic health records and land records.

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