“Even where there is no power and water there will be cell phone service,” says Shaffiq Essajee, chief medical officer of the Clinton Foundation’s HIV/AIDS Initiative. “People charge phones with hand dynamos or car batteries.”
Bill Thies, a Microsoft researcher and co-founder of Innovators In Health, an MIT initiative to improve health care in developing regions, says he thinks the system could have a “real impact.” As a part of Innovators in Health, Thies developed the uPhone, cell phone software that lets medical workers record patient data to be saved in a central location for further review. Thies notes that others have suggested using SMS messages to authenticate drugs. One such system, known as mPedigree, involves the use of scratch-off stickers affixed to each package. Before a consumer buys the drugs, she scratches off the sticker’s silver coating to reveal a verification code, which can be sent via cell phone for authentication, in much the same way that Epothecary authenticates transactions with end users. The difference is that Epothecary tracks the drugs through each stage of their journey–not just during the final sale.
“The key step for Epothecary is that it looks at every [transaction] before it hits the end user. You couldn’t do that with a single scratch-off sticker,” Thies says.
This makes the scheme particularly interesting to the Clinton Foundation, Essajee says. Counterfeit drugs aren’t a big problem for the organization, he says, since it provides HIV medicine free of charge, so there isn’t much of a black market. But Epothecary is still of interest to the foundation as a means of increasing efficiency. “It can be used to monitor supply chain, by giving you a snapshot of where your commodities are at any point in time and place.”
Essajee admits he does see obstacles to implementing Epothecary, though, particularly because drugs currently aren’t labeled with two-dimensional bar codes. Tagging every package once it reaches drug warehouses in the developing world would take considerable time and effort, and the process could be prone to human error, he says. Someone with access to the tags could also undermine the system and label counterfeit meds with legitimate tags while reselling the real drugs on the side.
“If it was actually the drug manufacturers placing those bar codes–that would be best. In fact, that’s the only way to ensure that counterfeit has not entered the supply chain,” he says.