Counterfeiting: an ongoing menace

Vipin Choudhary, Founder and CEO, PUCHO, informs Akanki Sharma about the impact of counterfeit medicines and how his company is trying to eliminate it, while also adding value to the consumer and brand owner in the process
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What is the current market potential of anti-counterfeiting solutions for drugs, nationwide as well as across the globe?

The global anti-counterfeit solutions market is expected to grow by $80.88 billion during 2021-2025, progressing at a CAGR of almost 12 per cent during the forecast period. As per a statement released by the United States Trade Representative (USTR), 20 per cent of all pharmaceutical goods sold in the Indian market are counterfeit. India is world’s leading producer of fake drugs, according to a research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the EU Intellectual Property Office.

Pharmaceutical and medical device industry in our country is $52 billion annually and counterfeiting is growing at an average of 20 per cent year on year.

India, engulfed by the COVID-19 pandemic, pushed people to rush to markets to get medicines, oxygen cylinders, masks, PPE kits and other essential life-saving equipment. The crisis and an acute shortage of drugs and medical devices to treat symptoms of COVID-19 unfortunately increased the circulation of counterfeit medicines and medical devices in recent times. While COVID-19 is a current pandemic, counterfeiting is an ongoing menace.

What prompted you to come up with PUCHO, and for how long has it been active now? How many users do you have till date?

I started working on a counterfeit solution in 2015 to address counterfeit in agrochemicals, which negatively impacts 65 per cent population’s (farmer) income by losing almost 70 per cent of crop yield, contaminates the produce which eventually causes long-term health problem for people consuming the produce, impacts country’s food production capability and much more.

The impact of counterfeit on the consumer, brand owner, the environment, economy, employment, health and the country is unimaginable. Thirty to 40 per cent of products sold in India annually are counterfeit. However, in the course of journey, I realised counterfeit medicine kills more people than malaria every year. Counterfeit COVID vaccines, medicines and medical equipment are already flooding the market. So, our industry focus changed to giving priority to pharma sector. Though, our solution can be used for all industries. We launched our solution on 1st August, 2021 and are already in discussion with many large pharma companies and even pharma associations.

Our advanced AI system reacts in real time to counterfeiter’s attempts to replicate our noise print feature, making sure not just to protect the integrity of the product, but also to discourage attempts to create fakes while collecting valuable data on the counterfeiters. Our mission is to eliminate counterfeit by adding value to the consumer and brand owner in the process.

Why does counterfeit continue to grow despite certain anti-counterfeit solutions being available in the market for decades?

Bar codes, holograms, 3d holograms, etc. were invented for data storage for supply chain, and do not work as anti-counterfeit solution as those can be easily copied. Even bar codes with unique numbers don’t work as anti-counterfeit solution. There is a 50 per cent chance of counterfeit being sold as original. The Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) also has a limited industry application, and is too expensive. It is meant for inventory management and track and trace, and is not effective as anti-counterfeit solution.

Apart from it, even invisible ink cannot be used by consumers to authenticate with naked eye, while scratch cards are something that a consumer can identify only after purchase.

How does PUCHO function? Tell us about your AI-powered noise print anti-copy labels to eliminate counterfeit. How can this be of help to pharmacists?

PUCHO offers the only anti-counterfeit solution that has been ISO 12931-certified, which comprises AI-powered noise print anti-copy labels to eliminate counterfeit, a multi-lingual app powered by Cypheme, a globally renowned AI and brand protection solution to protect drugs and medical device brands against the growing menace of counterfeits. PUCHO’s AI technology can also help identify fake COVID-19 vaccines. The result comes in multiple (15 vernacular) languages with an audio button for the consumer to hear the result.

PUCHO functionality is simple: scan – authenticate – buy. No brand owner wants to sell and no consumer wants to buy counterfeit medicine. Counterfeit happens in the journey of medicines from brand owner to retail shops, and ultimately counterfeit medicine reaches the consumer.

We have put the power in the hands of brand owner as well as the consumer – the brand owner affixes our noise print label and the consumer scans the label before purchasing the medicine.

Each noise print label has a unique and random chemically-generated signature that can be scanned, but cannot be copied. The noise print feature is managed by advanced neural network algorithms that detect change in any of the AI security labels administered to products in the open market. We will know when and how a counterfeiting attempt is made on the product and can take the necessary steps to prevent the counterfeiters from advancing.

The pharmacists and hospitals can authenticate the medicine before selling/administering to the patient. Consumers can authenticate before purchase, even the investigators, mystery shoppers of brand owners can authenticate the product via a simple scan through our app – PUCHO.

PUCHO provides the brand owners dashboard with data of authentic and counterfeit product scans with geo-location hotspots for targetted action against counterfeiters.

What are the existing challenges to the growth of anti-counterfeit solutions for medicines in India and across the world? What immediate steps are you taking to overcome these?

There are two challenges in combatting counterfeit medicines: lack of solution to authenticate “before purchase” and single platform to authenticate products from different companies/brand owners.

Our solution solves both these problems. We strive to make our technology simple and easy to use for a consumer. We focus on consumer-authentication before purchase. It is critical to empower consumers so that they can buy smart and keep themselves safe from counterfeit medicines.

Tell us about your business expansion plans.

We are in discussion with various pharma and medical devices companies and also pharma industry associations, giving product demos. The response is encouraging and engaging, as, apart from saving lives, it will also help pharma companies regain the revenue lost to the counterfeiters. By the year end, we intend to have this solution implemented on all critical drugs and COVID medicines.

akanki.sharma@expressindia.com
journoakanki@gmail.com

anti-counterfeiting solutionscounterfeit medicinespharma industryPUCHOVipin Choudhary
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