The sobering incident came on the heels of an interrelated set of developments that in their own way threatened the security of the drug supply chain:
The good news is that highly effective technology for tracking and accounting for medicines is near at hand, in the form of an electronic product code (EPC) information management system, using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. In essence, an EPC can give a unique individual numerical identity to every single unit of medicine—a process called mass serialization. RFID, meanwhile, automates the reading and tracking of these numbers and adds a layer of technological security. Fully implemented, an EPC/RFID pedigree system should enable authorized users to automatically identify and account for each unit of authentic medicine in real time as it enters and moves through the distribution system. It could identify the current location of all suspect products in the event of a recall, track disposal of damaged and out-of-date product, and allow law enforcement full and accurate supply chain visibility if terrorists were to launch an attack using tainted medicine. And it should do all this with minimal increases in staffing and packaging costs.
The US drug system has embraced EPC/RFID and is betting most of its "anticounterfeiting chips" on the expectation that a fully implemented system will be in place and operating (at the unit packaging level) by the year 2007 or earlier. The state of Florida already requires pedigrees for some products. Today's compliance challenge will grow exponentially when the Florida law expands to all drugs and all wholesalers in July 2006.
An Internet of Things RFID is not new. During World War II the Allies used it to help fighter pilots distinguish their planes from enemy aircraft. The systems used then were expensive and bulky. Today's RFID chips are about the size of the period at the end of this sentence and may ultimately cost just a few cents to make and apply.
The revolution in the size and cost of chips has been married with, and stimulated by, a consortium of businesses and academic institutions. In 1999, the Uniform Code Council (UCC), several leading international companies, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology formed the MIT Auto-ID Center, under the leadership of Kevin Ashton and Sanjay Sarma. The center was founded on a vision of an "internet of things," in which all products would be tagged with inexpensive chips that linked them to the global business information infrastructure.