AFRICAN INNOVATION HITS GLOBAL STAGE
(Modified for length from an original Bloomberg story by Simeon Bennett on May 14 2010 by Richard Akuoko)
At 12:30 p.m. on May 6, Ampem Dankwah sends a cell-phone message from the lobby of a downtown cafe in Accra, Ghana: “GH4F9H84B4.” His text opens a front in the war on sham malaria drugs.
Within 1.2 seconds, Dankwah's transmission is routed to a Hewlett-Packard Co. data center in Galway, Ireland, where a computer verifies the code and responds, “OK.” It is the first test of a system developed by HP and Dankwah's employer, mPedigree Network Ltd., to help millions of Africans avoid counterfeit malaria pills with little or no active medicine, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its May 17 issue.
Under the plan, legitimate drugs will come with a scratch-off panel hiding 10 digits. Consumers will send the code to a widely advertised number, and receive a reply confirming or disputing the product's authenticity. The system is designed to detect fakes that in some African nations make up half the drugs sold for malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that is the single greatest killer of African children, according to the William J. Clinton Foundation in New York.
“A big advantage of it is that it empowers the consumer,” said Paul Newton, a Vientiane, Laos-based researcher from the U.K.'s University of Oxford who studies counterfeit drugs. Pharmaceutical makers may welcome the development “because it would increase public confidence in medicines,” Newton said in a telephone interview.
HP plans to sign a contract with mPedigree within the next month, said Mick Keyes, a senior official in HP's chief technology office. The two companies intend to introduce the system with malaria pills in Ghana and Nigeria by December, and may expand later to Kenya, Tanzania, Liberia, Benin and Uganda.
� Glaxo, Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis
GlaxoSmithKline Plc is also “in discussions with mPedigree on the feasibility of this technology,” said Stephen Rea, a spokesman for the London-based drugmaker, in an e-mail. mPedigree and HP are talking to three other “major” pharmaceutical makers about participating, said Bright Simons, co-founder and owner of mPedigree, declining to identify them. Sanofi-Aventis SA, based in Paris, and Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis AG, which are among the biggest makers of antimalarials, declined to comment.
Malaria strikes almost 250 million people each year – and kills about 880,000, almost nine-tenths of whom are African children under 5 years old, according to the Geneva-based World Health Organization. About 45 million courses of fake antimalarials, valued at $438 million, are trafficked to West Africa from China and India annually by rogue manufacturers, the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime said in a report last year.
� 'Particularly Relevant'
The use of mobile phones to combat counterfeits is “particularly relevant for Africa in the short-run, given the urgency to deal with counterfeits already in the market while stronger regulatory capacity is built,” said Guy Willis, a spokesman for the International Federation of Pharmaceutical
Manufacturers & Associations, based in Geneva, in an e-mail. The group's members include New York-based Pfizer Inc., the world's biggest drug company.
Under the Hewlett-Packard plan, about 125,000 packs of malaria drugs will be labeled with random codes. If it works, the six-month program may be expanded to cover more drugs. Fake malaria and tuberculosis products alone are linked to about 700,000 deaths annually, the International Policy Network, a London-based nonprofit organization, said in a May 2009 report.
That's “the equivalent of four fully laden jumbo jets crashing every day,” the group said in a statement then.
A pilot system, not involving Hewlett-Packard's data center, was tested by mPedigree in a 2008 trial involving bottles of acetaminophen, a pain-killing syrup for children made by Ghana's Amponsah Efah Pharmaceutical Ltd. All 3,000 customers who bought the syrup sent in the code, Simons said.
�� �'Criminal Offense'
“If a consumer gets a NO message it is clear indication that the pharmacy outlet is selling fake medicines,” Simons said. “That is a criminal offence. Most pharmacy attendants will quickly and pleadingly replace the drug and give hell to whoever higher up the chain sold them the drug.”
Zain, a telephone company with headquarters in Manama, Bahrain, will provide the phone service for the mPedigree program, said Beverlyne Mudeshi, Zain's manager of corporate social responsibility, in an e-mail. mPedigree expects to sign a contract with Zain this week, Simons said in an e-mail. Zain's service will be accessible to consumers regardless of what carriers they use for everyday calls, he said.
� Posters, Radio
Zain and mPedigree plan to market the program through posters in pharmacies, text messages and radio advertisements, and through drugmakers' own ads, Simons said.
Drugmakers will pay for the system through a subscription fee, which mPedigree will share with Zain and Hewlett-Packard, Simons said. His five-employee company, based in Accra, wrote and owns the software that generates the codes and enables the Zain and HP systems to communicate.
Hewlett-Packard, based in Palo Alto, California, will maintain the data centers that hold and confirm codes, Keyes said. The company also plans to use the system to generate supply-chain information that will help drugmakers know where their products are. Keyes declined to say how much HP is investing in the program.
“We have talked to a number of the pharmaceutical companies,” Keyes said in a telephone interview from Dublin. “They like the model. For them it means they will have to provide us with certain amounts of information, rather than invest heavily in large systems and costly systems in-house themselves.”
Dozens of companies, such as Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of Waltham, Massachusetts, are developing anti-counterfeiting technologies, among them holograms, barcodes and invisible ink.
Mobile phones are simpler and cheaper, said Patrick Lukulay, director of drug quality and information for the United States Pharmacopeial Convention, a Rockville, Maryland-based nonprofit organization that tracks counterfeits. “In a low-tech, resource-limited environment it's very effective, because it's using a technology that millions of people have access to,” Lukulay said.
For Related News and Information:
More stories about counterfeit drugs: TNI CNTRFEIT DRG
Medical science stories: TNI MEDICAL SCIENCE
Most-read health-care news: MNI HEA
Today's top health and science news: HTOP
Search of Bloomberg drug data: BDRG
--The original version was produced with assistance from Naomi Kresge in Zurich, Trista Kelley in London. Editors: Jeffrey Tannenbaum, Michael Waldholz