While in the U.S. and Europe the appearance of counterfeits of the colon cancer drug Avastin gave drug counterfeiting a new shroud of seriousness, countries in the developing world live with its debilitating effects every day. The World Health Organization estimates that 700,000 people in Africa alone die each year as a result of taking fake anti-malarial and tuberculosis drugs. And drug counterfeiting kills profits while killing people; it is costing the drug manufacturing industry about $75 billion a year.
But a startup company has taken aim at drug counterfeiting in developing countries with a technology that relies on cell phones, which are relatively available, and what it refers to on its website as "crowd-sourced pharmacovigilance." Its technology is not unlike a system that India is considering requiring all drug manufacturers there to use to fight fake drugs.
Companies using the Sproxil authentication system package their products with a scratch-off label that has a unique code. Consumers can send a free text message with the code to Sproxil. Seconds later, the system responds with another free text telling them if the product is genuine. Companies including Merck KGaA and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) are using the system. And Sproxil recently struck a deal with mobile giant Bharti Airtel, that allows it to take the concept to the 17 countries in Africa where Bharti provides wireless service.
The Sproxil system has drawn a fair amount of attention, given that the company harkens from the biotech hub in the Boston area. Still, the system is not the only effort being made to reduce the impact of counterfeits in countries with poor populations and few resources to fight the problem. Roger Bate at the America Enterprise Institute, who has studied the issue of counterfeit and substandard drugs in developing countries, thinks monetary penalties could help. He suggests that companies making drugs for WHO programs that fail standard tests three times be booted from participating.