Could blockchain Help Solve the Counterfeit Pharmaceutical Problem?

A team of researchers may have found the solution.

Since its inception, blockchain has often been considered as an extension of Bitcoin. While the distributed ledger is still used in many cryptocurrency applications, it has been heralded for its other potential uses as the demand for Bitcoin wanes. Blockchain’s potential uses span many functions including shipping, real estate, finance, elections, food safety, tax compliance, and more. The very nature of blockchain (where information is distributed but can’t be copied) gives it a wide variety of potential uses. With increased scrutiny of the pharmaceutical supply chain due to high profile cases involving counterfeit pharmaceuticals, could blockchain be the answer? A group of researchers from Portland University thinks so.

The Problem

The pharmaceutical supply chain is an inherently murky one. Precursor chemicals are produced and purchased by the companies producing medication. The medication is made and then transferred to distributors who finally get the medications to hospitals, clinics, or pharmacies. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but it serves to illustrate just how complicated the journey that our medication take before they ever make it to the end user. This complicated path and a lack of visibility lead US regulators to implement the Drug Supply Chain Security Act, which requires any company that wishes to sell a pharmaceutical product to have full “traceability” by 2023. This is where blockchain might come into play.

The Pharmaceutical Blockchain

On April 15th, computer science researchers at Portland University published a paper establishing a framework for an “anti-counterfeiting blockchain using a truly decentralized dynamic consensus protocol.” Their novel approach uses blockchain to record every step a product takes from precursor chemical to eventual end use by storing these “transactions” in a more secure way that would help eliminate fake drugs by tracking and verifying products without the need for a centralized system that could be compromised.

Currently, leading anti-counterfeit systems rely on a centralized system that makes it easy for human or machine error to be introduced. The system proposed by the team at Portland University would use digital tags to track a product’s serial number, name, and expiration date as it moves through the supply chain. In theory, this protocol could greatly reduce, or even eliminate, the supply of counterfeit pharmaceuticals. While this application of blockchain has the potential to secure the pharmaceutical supply chain, it could also be applied to nearly any supply chain.

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