Counterfeit medicine is a vast and terrifying problem. An estimated 1 million people die every year as a result of unknowingly taking counterfeit drugs, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It has also predicted that around 10% of all medicines circulating the globe today are fake and the problem disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable in impoverished countries, with the rate as high as 30% in some areas of Asia, Latin America and Africa.
This industry is almost as lethal as it is lucrative, with a value of around $200bn annually (for comparison, the illegal drug trade is worth around $246bn).
The reason it is such a successful industry is because it is so difficult to trace the source of these medicines and due to the fact that these imposters are almost impossible to detect in the first place. "Counterfeiters can produce look-alike drugs and devices that contain little or no active ingredients, or the wrong ingredients, for less than the authentic medication would cost to make," the Partnership for Safe Medicines (PSM) states.
"Criminals duplicate packaging, product shape, taste and feel so that it is indistinguishable from authentic medicine. Patients and doctors can’t tell the difference," PSM added.
So, it's easy to see why business is booming.
But even with all these factors stacked up against us, we have a very, very valuable ally in the fight against counterfeits: Data.
Data-centric technologies, in particular blockchain, AI and machine learning, have proved incredibly effective in the fight against fake medicines. Over the last few years, as the technology orbiting around data develops, so do the companies working to combat this problem. DATAx sat down with Raja Sharif, CEO one of these companies FarmaTrust, who use blockchain to effectively trace individual packets of pharmaceuticals throughout the global supply chain.
DATAx: What is the role of AI and machine learning in FarmaTrust's solution?
Raja Sharif: Ultimately, our vision is that our system will enable customers to use AI to find faster and more efficient routes to market, and to know what to produce, when to produce it, in which quantities and for which territories. This will mean that pharmaceutical companies and governments can eliminate waste and reduce overcapacity or under-production of pharmaceutical goods.
DATAx: How does FarmaTrust's blockchain technology potentially save lives in the pharma supply chain?
RS: Our system effectively seals the pharmaceutical supply chain from fake drugs, because we track legitimate products from the point of production to the point of consumption. Duplicate or illegitimate packets will be flagged up and destroyed.
DATAx: What is the future for FarmaTrust?
RS: The future is bright for FarmaTrust as we operate in the $1.3 trillion pharmaceutical sector. Companies are currently under so much pressure to digitize and become datacentric and we can help them with that by installing our futureproof blockchain solution.
Not only can we help with the regulatory compliance, we can assist with the automation of the whole supply chain. Our divisions which focus on personalized medicine (cell/gene therapy) and clinical trials are in high growth sectors, so we believe there will be revenues in the coming year.
DATAx: What is your opinion on the use of dApps and their role in assisting blockchain to gain more mainstream popularity?
RS: dApps is an interesting area which will allow substantial growth in the use of blockchain technologies. Currently we are going through building the blockchain foundations for our platform, but dApps will allow its utilization across various industries.
DATAx: What makes blockchain different to technologies that have come before it?
RS: Blockchain allows trust in a trustless environment. With the technology you no longer need a trusted custodian or middle person to verify transactions because of the immutability and incorruptibility of the data that is being recorded.
DATAx: Which will be the most impactful in 2019, AI or blockchain?
RS: Both and sometimes concurrently. If you provide AI with data integrity, then the results can be extremely accurate.
DATAx: Can you outline some of your predictions for blockchain and data trends for 2019?
RS: My predictions for next year are as follows:
- There will be growing mainstream acceptance of cryptocurrencies.
- Speed and scalability issues will be significantly improved for blockchain platforms.
- There will be a uniform and growing international regulation of crypto assets.
- More governments will place services such as land registries, patient records and voting on the blockchain.
DATAx: How would you respond to claims that the blockchain hype is over?
RS: Just like the dotcom boom and bust, successful projects will grow into mature companies and take the place of the FAANGs, whereas weaker projects will die off. Over the next decade a new breed of blockchain and AI companies will lead the way of increasing automation and efficiencies worldwide. Some jobs will disappear, and new jobs will be created.