The danger of COVID-19-related counterfeit products is real

What if the medications or supplements that you or a family member relied on were fake? Or worse, what if it was actually harmful? Unfortunately, during this global pandemic, the opportunity for pharmaceutical supply chain manipulation is very real. In fact, we expect a surge in counterfeit products specifically for treatments related to COVID-19. Therefore, it has become more important than ever to ensure authenticity of the medications patients use throughout the world.

In treating COVID-19, whether it is an over the counter treatment, prescription, medical device, or vaccine, the need for these products has already shown to be massive and will inevitably create a large gap between demand and authentic supply. Additionally, as countries have implemented various levels of lockdown, consumers are avoiding person-to-person contact by getting medications through non-traditional channels like online sales or non-licensed retailers. These retailers may be the only source of a particular product, and counterfeiters are capitalizing on this.

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To prevent counterfeiting, countries have mandated that pharmaceutical manufactures have the ability to authenticate or “track and trace” products throughout their supply chain. Although the requirements vary country to country, products are successfully authenticated as they move from the manufacturer through the complex pharmaceutical supply chain and into the hands of consumers. This is done by applying a unique identification code to the unit of sale, which gets validated throughout the supply chain and most importantly prior to dispensing to the patient.

As a result of serialization, pharmaceutical manufacturers have made great investment implementing serialization to deter counterfeiting, but despite these efforts, ‘big pharma’ remains in the ‘distrusted’ category based on Edelman’s annual global consumer trust survey². Although the reasons for this ranking may be multi-faceted, when it comes to drug safety, I think consumers may not understand the full benefit of serialization beyond its role as an enforced regulatory requirement.

Manufacturers have an opportunity to build trust, instill consumer confidence, and ensure patient safety during these unprecedented times. To do so, they can expand serialization to include their full portfolio of products, not just those required by federal mandates. Of the nearly 50 countries with active mandates, only 9 have requirements that include over the counter products. This has become a huge target for counterfeiting due to the high volume, widespread online sales, and ease of entry into the supply chain, all extremely prevalent during this global pandemic. And unlike prescription products, consumers often have a variety of choices in over the counter (OTC) medications which presents an opportunity for manufacturers to capitalize on brand loyalty. With serialization, it becomes possible for customers to validate the authenticity of a product through a scannable barcode, giving them confidence that a product is safe.

The cost required for manufacturers to expand serialization to all products is relatively minimal compared to the initial investment, as many already have the infrastructure (e.g. packing lines, scanners, technology) in place. The results could be monumental. Some benefits include:

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  1. Increase OTC market share and consumer trust by being the first in pharma to prove the authenticity of products through serialization
  2. Capture new advanced data on consumer purchasing and use, made possible through the scanning of the serial number
  3. Reduce the possibility of adverse events due to counterfeit products

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I believe pharmaceutical manufactures can differentiate themselves by going beyond the mere regulatory requirements to further ensure that every product bought by a customer is authentic. Consumers need reassurance now more than ever.

To learn more about leading with integrity and trust read our report.

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Thank you to Casey Vandevere for his contributions to this blog.

  1. U.S. trust in pharma ticks upward, but consumers still distrust the industry: Survey. 

The opinions, statements, and assessments in this report are solely those of the individual author(s) and do not constitute legal advice, nor do they necessarily reflect the views of Accenture, its subsidiaries, or affiliates.

This document is intended for general informational purposes only and does not take into account the reader’s specific circumstances, and may not reflect the most current developments. Accenture disclaims, to the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, any and all liability for the accuracy and completeness of the information in this presentation and for any acts or omissions made based on such information. Accenture does not provide legal, regulatory, audit, or tax advice. Readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel or other licensed professionals.

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All rights reserved. Accenture and its logo are registered trademarks.

Carly Guenther

Managing Director – Strategy & Consulting, Supply Chain & Operations, Customer-Centric Supply Chain Lead

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