Researchers from New York University have proposed a system for authenticating and tracking drugs distributed in the developing world. The system, called Epothecary, would use cell phone cameras to read two-dimensional bar codes affixed to packages and assigned to distributors and pharmacists. The researchers hope the system can be used to prevent the distribution of counterfeit drugs through legitimate channels.
The World Health Organization estimates that more than 10 percent of drugs in the developing world are counterfeit. Some counterfeit meds contain the right ingredients in the right quantities, but others are substandard or even poisonous.
Michael Paik, a PhD candidate at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, saw the problem firsthand while working with a relief agency in Sudan three years ago. “One of the problems that we were seeing was in the tracking of medication,” Paik says. “I’d also read reports of people dying due to poisoned meds or subtherapeutic meds.”
Paik thinks that Epothecary can greatly reduce such incidents and provide a simple drug-tracking scheme as well. Under the system, every shipping crate, box, and individual drug container would be labeled with a unique two-dimensional bar code: a black and white image that represents information about the contents of the package, such as the name of the drug and the number of tablets included. Each distributor and retailer would also get two-dimensional bar codes, printed on a photo ID.
To buy new medication, a retailer logs in to the Epothecary system on his cell phone and provides his password. The retailer then takes a picture of his own bar code, as well as the distributor’s bar code and the bar codes for the medication he wants to buy. Cell phone software deciphers the information encoded by the two-dimensional bar code, and that data is encrypted and sent to a central server via Short Message Service (SMS). The software then checks that the distributor is the legitimate owner of the drugs in question. (If possible, the phone would also transmit its GPS location to the server and that information would be checked against the known address of the distributor and retailer.) If everything checks out, the retailer can purchase the drugs and record that transaction on the server, via his cell phone.
The retailer, now the official owner of the medicine, is free to sell the drugs to consumers. At the time of purchase, the retailer can allay fears about counterfeit meds by logging in to the Epothecary system, sending pictures of the two-dimensional bar codes for the drugs and his own bar code to the central server. The server would respond with an eight-digit number that the consumer could then send to an advertised phone number, to retrieve information about the drug he is about to purchase. “On the spot I can receive some kind of guarantee that I can check against what I see in front of me,” explains Paik. A paper outlining the approach was presented last month at the MobiHeld 2009 conference in Barcelona, Spain.
Low-tech solutions for authenticating drugs, such as serial numbers and holograms, are easily faked, and Paik says that other high-tech solutions “rely a lot on there being a large installation of network technology.” A pharmacist might, for example, scan a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag on a carton of pills to authenticate the meds. But that means exchanging a lot of data with a database far away and also requires him to have an RFID reader and, quite likely, a laptop. Such technology isn’t as abundant as the cell phone in many parts of the world.