Pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma LP is working closely with law-enforcement agencies to use radio-frequency identification technology to protect shipments of OxyContin, Purdue's painkiller drug that's a frequent target for theft. This week Purdue said it will even donate handheld RFID scanning equipment to law-enforcement and cargo-theft investigative agencies around the country.
Purdue is also starting a pilot program this week to use RFID tags on shipments of 100-tablet bottles of OxyContin to two of its largest customers, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Co., to help prevent theft during distribution.
RFID can be used to create an electronic drug pedigree, a tracking mechanism that follows products from the manufacturer to the wholesaler and finally to the pharmacy, says Aaron Graham, VP and chief security officer at Purdue. Pedigrees can help law-enforcement officers quickly determine the original source of a drug confiscated during robbery and burglary investigations--a process that currently takes months to investigate using paper records, says Tom Stone, executive director of the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Association.
"A bottle of a drug like OxyContin can be virtually impossible to track where it came from, like a robbery, a burglary, or internal theft. A lot of times [a drug shipment lot number] doesn't go to one pharmacy or one wholesaler, so we're often at a loss," says John Burke, commander of the Warren County, Ohio, Prescription Drug Task Force and coordinator for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force for prescription drugs. "What RFID will do is pinpoint whether the drug was involved in a theft or a robbery."
Purdue will donate 100 handheld RFID readers to law-enforcement organizations, including federal law-enforcement cargo-theft units, field offices of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations, and state and local task forces that target theft and diversion of prescription drugs. They'll use them to read RFID chips on drug bottles to identify their electronic product codes. Once the EPCs are obtained, officers will phone or E-mail the data to Purdue, which will research the E-pedigrees to identify the origin of the drugs in question, Graham says. Purdue will also provide videos or written instructions for training law-enforcement officers on how to properly use the readers, Graham says.
Purdue has not yet set a time frame for the donation. Purdue itself uses RFID equipment from Matrics Inc., and it's working with Matrics and other vendors to find RFID reader models that are the most rugged, durable, and user-friendly for law enforcement, and which can withstand the wear and tear they will likely undergo. Additionally, Purdue has yet to identifying the specific law-enforcement agencies that will get the readers.
Pharmaceutical companies hope RFID will help reduce drug counterfeiting and thefts. OxyContin, a widely abused prescription drug in the United States, is frequently the target for drug-store robberies and theft from distribution channels. That makes the drug a good prospect for early use of RFID, Forrester Research analyst Liz Boehm says.
But she cautions that RFID has to be widely adopted all along the pharmaceutical distribution chain before it can be effective in preventing theft and counterfeiting. "There are many steps between the drug leaving the manufacturer's warehouse, going through a number of middlemen, and ultimately ending up in a pharmacy. If you only scan at the manufacturer's plant, that gives the drug a pedigree, but if the next scan is all the way at the pharmacy, you wouldn't know if something might have gone astray in the in-between process," Boehm says. "If they really want to crack down on counterfeiting, they have to use readers every time the drug changes hands."