The recent toxic drug crisis in India and Indonesia has raised global concerns. In India, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) identified two toxic syrups in October 2023. Simultaneously, the WHO issued a global warning about four cough syrups manufactured by Maiden Pharmaceuticals, linked to the deaths of 66 children in Gambia. While both Indian authorities and Maiden Pharmaceuticals refuted these claims, by March, India had revoked the production license of a company whose cough syrup resulted in the deaths of 18 children in Uzbekistan.
Drug Contamination in Indonesia
Meanwhile, Indonesia faced a scandal involving syrups containing Diethylene Glycol (DEG) and Ethylene Glycol (EG). These chemical compounds, commonly found in industrial products, can be fatally toxic when ingested. As per BBC Indonesia, by February 5, 2023, there were 326 reported cases of kidney failure in children across 27 provinces in Indonesia.
Challenges and Solutions
This crisis underscores the unique challenges developing countries face in overseeing their drug supply chains, such as inadequate infrastructure, resource limitations, and weak regulations. Other factors like corruption, intricate supply chains, and import reliance exacerbate the situation. However, with the implementation of blockchain technology, these nations can enhance transparency and accountability in their drug supply chains and bolster regional and international cooperation in drug oversight.
Why is blockchain technology pivotal in addressing challenges related to the intricate oversight of drug production to distribution in developing countries?
Transparency and Traceability
In many developing nations, the drug supply chain is often hindered by inadequate infrastructure and suboptimal regulations. Insufficient infrastructure can mean a lack of technology to track and monitor drug movements, while weak regulations can mean a lack of quality standards or rigorous oversight of circulating drugs. Both challenges can make it difficult to identify the source of drug contamination or quality issues, endangering public health.
Blockchain, a distributed ledger technology, offers a solution to enhance transparency and traceability in the drug supply chain. With blockchain, every drug transaction or movement can be recorded and verified by all involved parties. This means that if there’s an issue with a particular drug, its source can be swiftly and accurately traced back.
One example of blockchain implementation in drug traceability is the project undertaken by the tech company Mediledger. This project aims to track drugs from manufacturers to end consumers, ensuring patients receive genuine and quality-standard drugs. Using blockchain, Mediledger can verify a drug’s origin, production batch, expiration date, and other relevant information. This ensures that the drugs on the market are safe and genuine. Such projects demonstrate how blockchain can be applied in the pharmaceutical industry to enhance safety and consumer trust in the drugs they consume.
Product Authentication in Developing Countries
Given the oversight limitations in developing nations, product authentication becomes paramount. Technologies like QR codes or RFID, integrated with blockchain, ensure the authenticity of medicines at every distribution point. QR codes, a two-dimensional barcode, and RFID, which uses radio waves for tracking, can both store detailed medicine information such as origin and production date. When combined with blockchain, this stored information can be verified and tracked, ensuring full transparency in the medicine supply chain.
For instance, pharmaceutical giant Novartis has adopted this technology to trace medicines. Through a blockchain-linked QR code, Novartis provides detailed medicine information. Patients and pharmacists can verify medicine authenticity by scanning the QR code, ensuring they receive genuine products as recorded in the blockchain. This technology plays a pivotal role in bolstering consumer trust and combating counterfeit medicines.
Managing Product Recalls
In the pharmaceutical industry, product recalls are scenarios to avoid but must always be prepared for. An incident in Nigeria in 2008, where the teething syrup “My Pikin” contained the toxic diethylene glycol (DEG), underscores this importance. This medicine led to the deaths of over 80 children and poisoned hundreds more. Investigations revealed DEG was used as a substitute for the safe ingredient, propylene glycol.
In response, Nigerian health authorities swiftly recalled the product and shut down its manufacturing plant. Such incidents highlight the importance of stringent oversight on medicine raw materials and production standards. With blockchain technology, product recall processes can be more efficient and precise. Blockchain’s transparent and immutable nature ensures every produced medicine batch is detailed recorded, including raw material information, production date, and distribution. This allows for swift and targeted product recalls, preventing broader adverse impacts.
Smart Contracts for Compliance
In developing countries, automating regulatory compliance processes, especially in the pharmaceutical industry, often poses challenges due to infrastructure and resource limitations. However, a solution emerges through blockchain technology with “smart contracts.” Smart contracts are automatic programs on the blockchain ensuring all parties fulfil their obligations as agreed.
For example, in the medicine supply chain, before distribution, smart contracts will check if the medicine meets quality standards and regulations. If it does, the medicine proceeds to the next stage; if not, the process halts. This ensures only quality products circulate in the market, enhancing consumer trust and reducing risks.
Crisis Management and Emergency
Response In crisis situations, such as disease outbreaks or product contamination issues, developing countries often face challenges in gathering, verifying, and disseminating information swiftly and accurately. Suboptimal communication infrastructure, fragmented reporting systems, and human resource limitations are major obstacles.
Blockchain, with its decentralized and transparent nature, offers a solution to these challenges. Every entity or agency involved in crisis management can access and update data on the blockchain in real-time. For instance, if medicine contamination occurs in a region, the information can be promptly recorded on the blockchain, and health agencies in other regions can immediately receive notifications and take preventive actions. Additionally, blockchain-protected data ensures all parties operate based on the same, trustworthy information. Thus, inter-agency coordination becomes more efficient, crisis responses are quicker, and negative impact risks are minimized.
The toxic medicine crises in India and Indonesia spotlight the unique challenges faced by developing countries in overseeing the medicine supply chain. By implementing blockchain technology, developing nations can create a safer and more trustworthy ecosystem, minimizing contamination risks and protecting consumer lives. This solution will not only restore public trust but also ensure similar tragedies are prevented in the future.