HolidayBuyer's Guide

Pfizer fights fake Viagra with RFID

Drug maker release details of high-tech plan to ensure its most frequently counterfeited product is the real thing. Photo: Viagra RFID takes aim at counterfeits

Viagra may help many couples heat up the bedroom, but it has also helped fuel a huge counterfeit market.

Pfizer, the maker of the world-famous love drug, is now fighting back with technology. The company began on Dec. 15 to affix electronic identification devices known as RFID tags to all U.S. shipments of Viagra in an effort detect counterfeit pills, 5 million of which were seized by authorities last year. RFID stands for radio frequency identification and is an emerging security and inventory control technology.

The move, which Pfizer claims is a first, was expected. The company made its plans public over a year ago, but discussed new details on Friday. Among them is that the company has equipped all bottles of Viagra with RFID tags, along with cases and pallets used for shipment. The company expects to "tag" all Viagra shipments within the U.S. this year, totaling several million bottles, said Peggy Staver, director of trade product integrity at Pfizer.

Viagra

"Viagra was selected for the RFID project because it has been a major target for counterfeiters," Pfizer said in a statement.

The company plans to spend about $5 million on the project and has tapped two tag companies. Tagsys, a French company, is supplying RFID tags for bottles, while , of Morgan Hill, Calif., is furnishing tags for cases and pallets.

Each tag contains a microchip that stores a unique serial code, known as an Electronic Product Code, and an antenna for transmitting the code wirelessly. Pharmacists and drug distributors can retrieve the codes with a special reader and verify their authenticity by checking a Pfizer database via the Web.

The devices offer several advantages over barcodes, Staver said. For one, they are harder and more expensive to duplicate. Reading them is also easier, because many tags can be scanned simultaneously without much handling.

But there are drawbacks. The young technology is prone to failure. It's also expensive. To read the tags, distributors and pharmacies need RFID readers, which cost a few hundred dollars each. Few distributors have purchased them, and Pfizer does not plan to pick up the tab, Staver said.

The company hopes more of its partners will purchase the readers based on recommendations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is urging the drug industry to adopt the technology.

"We're hopeful that by doing this...it encourages others to look further at the technology," Staver said.

Patient safety is another reason to do it, she said. Counterfeit drugs, often manufactured abroad and smuggled into the country, can contain dangerous substances. Boric acid, leaded paint and floor wax have all been found in the illicit drugs, she said. However, Pfizer is unaware of anyone ever being harmed by counterfeit Viagra, she added.

For Pfizer, there's clearly a financial incentive. The company loses tens of millions of dollars to the counterfeit drug trade each year, a Pfizer spokesman said. And highly profitable Viagra is Pfizer's most frequently counterfeited product.

But the company should also take care to avoid a common pitfall of RFID--outcries from privacy advocates. Many worry that consumers will one day be enshrouded in a cloud of RFID signals produced by their belongings, subjecting them to invasive monitoring and spying. And one could hardly imagine a product consumers would want to guard more from prying eyes than Viagra.

Pfizer said its RFID plans do not call for tracking patient information of any kind. It also doesn't store any product or patient information on the RFID tags, just the serial number. In addition, the bottles that most patients take home from the pharmacy won't contain RFID tags because most pharmacists usually transfer medicines from manufacturers' bottles to generic amber bottles when dispensing the pills.

On all bottles containing RFID tags, the company also puts a special logo and the words, "This package contains a radio frequency device," in fine print, since you can't see the tags, which are paper-thin and inserted under the bottles' labels.

Yet the company has allowed itself some wiggle room on this front, declaring on its Web site, "We will communicate promptly any changes to...our use of RFID technology as it affects consumer privacy."

Staver did not elaborate on what those changes might be.
Close
Drag