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A panacea for counterfeit medicines

  • Published at 05:57 pm June 22nd, 2016

This is a story about two enterprising young brothers who identified the proliferation of counterfeit drugs as a critical public health safety issue, developed a simple digital solution to address it, and effectively partnered with a large pharmaceutical company to lead this fight in Bangladesh. It is an inspiring case study about Bangladeshs demographic dividend delivering on its potential. Counterfeit medicines are a global problem. In Bangladesh, an estimated 3% of the total medicine supply is counterfeit, but this number is growing rapidly. Not surprisingly, the counterfeiters target well-known brands. More often than not, the packaging and outward appearance of the fake product, unlike its contents, are virtually identical to the genuine article. Brothers Soumik and Souvik Aswad, both in their early twenties, were troubled by this alarming infiltration of counterfeit medicine and the potential life threatening impact on their fellow citizens. Rather than having a fleeting discussion about the problem on social media, they thought deeply about how consumers can be empowered. The solution they developed is brilliant and simple and involves the humble yet ubiquitous cell phone SMS. The idea is as followsduring production, a pharmaceutical company prints a unique code on each medicine strip, which the customer can SMS to a particular number. The SMS then links up with the company's computer, which can verify whether the code was indeed printed during production. Subsequently, the computer sends back an SMS confirming that the product is genuine. Having developed the idea into a full-fledged business plan, the brothers set up a company called Panacea and entered several competitions. Since then, Panacea has won several awards including: (1) First prize at TIE Next Big Bang Challenge, Bangladesh; (2) Second prize at GIST Startup Boot Camp, Bangladesh; (3) First prize at Reconnect Startup Boot Camp, Nepal; and (4) Second prize at Start up Open, Washington DC, USA. While awards are satisfying, the real test comes in trying to execute a business plan successfully. To this end, Soumik and Souvik solicited the support of pharmaceutical companies in Bangladesh, and Renata Limited volunteered to help. Renata is the fourth largest pharmaceutical company in Bangladesh, and employs and develops Bangladeshs brightest young talents. Its forward thinking workforce immediately embraced the idea of fighting counterfeit medicine and proposed to apply Panaceas technology to Maxpro and Rolac, two of Renata's biggest selling brands. There were challenges right at the onset. A plethora of information is already printed on blister foils and the additional printing requirement of the unique code created a new problem. Renata uses super-fast blister machines but the online printers were not fast enough to place the unique code alongside pre-existing information. The team searched globally for printers with matching speeds but none could maintain an acceptable loss in productivity. The project seemed doomed. Renatas young engineers then had their own 'eureka' moment - to modify the expensive blister machines. The retrofitted machines now allow additional printers to be installed to place the unique code without slowing down the packaging line. The project took 10 months to complete and is now ready for roll out. Extensive testing has been done to ensure efficacy. The success of this roll out will be a significant first step towards combating the serious public health safety concerns of counterfeit medicine. The fact that Panacea is 100% Bangladeshi, and that its launch is a result of the collaborative efforts of innovative young minds at a start-up and an established company, bodes well for the future of Bangladesh.