News: Pharma Giants Launch RFID Pilots

Erik Swain

Pfizer is testing RFID on Viagra.

Counterfeiting and theft are two problems increasingly plaguing the pharmaceutical industry. As a result, some drug manufacturers are beginning to experiment with using radio-frequency identification (RFID) on packages to combat them.

In November, FDA announced a pilot project to study the use of RFID tags on certain medications subject to counterfeit or diversion. In addition to assessing the effectiveness of the technology, the agency might be able to use the results to help develop standards and processes for use of RFID on pharmaceuticals. Those involved in the project say RFID could be used to help fight counterfeiting and diversion because it can track products throughout the entire distribution system, and because it is difficult for counterfeiters to replicate.

“RFID technology is an important new tool that will help our community pharmacists ensure the safety and authenticity of the products they dispense to patients,” says Bruce Roberts, executive vice president and CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association, which represents 70,000 independent pharmacists.

Manufacturers involved in the program, including GlaxoSmithKline (GSK; Research Triangle Park, NC) and Pfizer (New York City), say they will begin shipping packages with RFID within the next year to 18 months. Pfizer will use RFID on its erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, which is one of the nation’s most popular and most counterfeited medicines. GSK will pick for the program at least one of its six drugs designated by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacies as being susceptible for adulteration, counterfeiting, or diversion. Those designated drugs are Combivir, Epivir, Retrovir, Trizivir, Ziagen, and Zofran.

Purdue Pharma LP (Stamford, CT) is taking more immediate action. In November it began shipping 100-tablet bottles of its painkiller Oxycontin containing RFID tags to two of its largest customers, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (Bentonville, AR) and H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Co. (Springfield, IL). Purdue also announced it would donate handheld RFID scanning equipment to law enforcement agencies. Oxycontin in particular is a frequent target for theft because it is often sold on the black market for illegal recreational purposes.

Purdue said it is complying with recommendations from FDA’s Counterfeit Drug Task Force to combat counterfeiting. Adopting RFID was one of those recommendations.

“Our objective in implementing these security features is to deter counterfeiting, reduce diversion, and help ensure the authenticity, safety, and integrity of our products,” says Aaron Graham, vice president and chief security officer for Purdue Pharma. “RFID technology provides the pharmaceutical industry with the ability to create an electronic drug pedigree, or tracking mechanism, that will lead to greater supply-chain security and patient protection against counterfeit drugs.”

Also as part of the program, Purdue will begin using variable-effect, color-shifting ink in the label for Oxycontin, making it harder for counterfeiters to reproduce the label.

Pfizer, too, has incorporated color-shifting inks into some product logos, and has implemented unique bar coding on other products.

“To us, this is strictly a patient-safety issue,” says Tom McPhillips, vice president of Pfizer’s U.S. Trade Group. “Drug counterfeiting is a serious and growing problem and RFID offers the potential to be an important anti-counterfeiting technology in the future.”

For GSK, the use of RFID is not new, as the company has implemented it on some consumer healthcare products. “GSK has developed a strategy across all business units to use this technology to protect patients as well as to improve accuracy and efficiency in our work,” says David Pulman, president of global manufacturing and supply.



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